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Strategies for Tackling the "Biggest Workplace Health Problem Today"

Whether you're involved in data entry, assembly line work, scooping ice cream, or simply knitting or playing racquetball in their spare time, you are at risk for what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has called "the biggest workplace health problem today."

Consisting of more than 100 injuries ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis to lower back strain, cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) have increased more than 1,000 percent in a decade — from 26,000 in 1983 to 302,000 in 1993, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. CTDs currently comprise 62 percent of all workplace illnesses, despite a 7 percent decline in recent 1995 BLS statistics.

"Every business needs to examine the overall health of the work force and risk factors in and outside the workplace," cautioned Dr. Alain Couturier, a member of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) who developed a Labor Day CheckList of tips employers and employees can implement to prevent CTDs.

"De-conditioned individuals are at greater risk for CTDs because their tissues have lower thresholds for damage from exposures to cumulative stressors," Couturier noted.

However, anyone can acquire a CTD, he warned, including employees who slouch, use foot pedals repetitiously, lift objects unassisted or in awkward postures, or carry light weights away from the body. Computer users also are at risk, whether they use the computer for work or recreationally. And, many employees may be prone to CTDs while enjoying recreational activities at home, such as playing the violin or piano, and driving or riding motorcycles long distances.

"Building a deck over the weekend may be dangerous for an out-of-shape executive," Couturier said. "Driving hundreds of nails into boards and beams without breaks or stretching can put strain on muscles."

ACOEM's checklist addresses 17 CTD risk factors, including such lifestyle issues as inactivity, sleep, "vices," diet, illicit drugs and recreation. Suggestions employers can follow in this area include:

Encourage physical fitness; consider health club discounts.

Limit shift changes.

Ban alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drug use in the workplace.

Promote wellness and prevention programs.

And, provide employee assistance programs (EAPs) for people in need

Employees, meanwhile, can: get regular, restful sleep and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (with pulse at 75 percent of maximum heart rate) three to four times weekly; avoid alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and illicit drugs; eat a well-balanced diet; maintain desirable weight; and limit knitting, keyboarding and distance driving.

"Preventing CTDs may simply involve making workstations more flexible, taking appropriately timed rest breaks and task rotations, eating a healthy diet and getting the proper aerobic exercise and sleep," Couturier said.

Address: ACOEM, 55 West Seegers Road, Arlington Heights, IL 60005-3919.

Top 15 Most Dangerous Jobs
(Non-Fatal Occupational Injuries & Illnesses)
Ranking Occupation Number of Injuries/Illnesses
(in thousands)
1 Truck Drivers 151.3
2 Laborers, non-construction 115.5
3 Nursing aides, orderlies 100.6
4 Assemblers 55.5
5 Janitors, cleaners 52.6
6 Laborers, construction 43.5
7 Cooks 35.4
8 Carpenters 35
9 Stock handlers, baggers 34.7
10 Food Preparers, misc. 34.1
11 Cashiers 30.2
12 Welders, cutters 29.9
13 Sales workers, misc. 27.9
14 Registered nurses 27.8
15 Maids, housemen 26.1

Source: Compiled by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine from 1995 data, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

Copyright 1998 Health Resources Publishing

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