Workplace injuries increase as workforce ages

Tuesday, October 18, 2005
With the fourth floor steel in place, construction workers continued their work on the New Federal Courthouse in Cape Girardeau. (DON FRAZIER ~ dfrazier@

Southeast Missouri is no different than the rest of the country when it comes to having an aging workforce. There are 78 million baby boomers nationwide, and the oldest ones are turning 61 this year.

Typically, there is a 25 percent decrease in strength and endurance by the time workers turn 65, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Robert Sherrill, director and founder of Mid America Rehab in Cape Girardeau, agrees that older workers with diminishing strength increases the risk of injury, especially when performing physically demanding jobs. But he said the aging workforce is only partially to blame for work-related injuries.

Sherrill said high productivity standards, poor job design, history of previous injury, obesity and excessive tobacco and alcohol use can all contribute to increased risk of musculoskeletal injury at work.

"In our facility, we see the full spectrum of work-related injuries from minor sprains and strains to more serious post-accident and post-operation rehabilitation cases," Sherrill said.

He said the most common are repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, cubital tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.

Sherrill, a physical therapist, said other common work-related injuries are back strains, shoulder impingement and traumas. He said most injuries are first seen by an occupational medicine physician and, if appropriate, workers are referred for physical or occupational therapy to expedite their recovery and return to work.

Family practitioner Dr. Robert George of Cape Girardeau said carpal tunnel syndrome is a common malady of patients he sees. He said repetitive strain injuries occur mostly with older workers.

Dr. Jeremy Barnes, associate professor of health management at Southeast Missouri State University, said workplace injuries of office workers can be reduced by ergonomically-designed work stations. Good lighting and correct height of chairs are important, he said. So are clear visual-display units and well-designed keyboards.

"Wood floors are better than concrete floors because they have a little more give," he said. "That helps the pressure on the lower back."

Barnes said a worker in reasonably good physical condition will have a diminished risk of lower back strain than an obese worker. As concerns carpal tunnel syndrome, which is common among typists, dental hygienists, sewing machine operators and assemblers, and other repetitive stress injuries, Barnes said he recently read a study that indicates obesity is a negative factor in repetitious work.

"Some companies have on-site fitness centers, and some are implementing stretching programs to improve the physical condition of employees," said Barnes. "We have an academic training program here (at Southeast) and some students are employed at area rehab companies."

Sherrill said area businesses have found it beneficial to perform employment testing through WorkSTEPS on new hires and on existing employees to establish job specific capabilities and to assess for medical risk from pre-existing conditions. WorkSTEPS is a nationally recognized program developed by physical therapists more than 15 years ago.

"When I consult with companies, I make recommendations to help them decrease work-related injuries and improve worker safety," said Sherrill.

The recommendations include performing ergonomic analyses and implementing work design changes, educating employees on proper lifting techniques, and doing fit-for-duty testing following an injury or prior to return to work.

According to Russell Jones, an occupational safety and health specialist with OSHA in Washington, D.C., one in every three American workers will suffer a musculoskeletal injury this year. He said if employees are unable to perform the essential functions of their job, it's not a matter of if -- but when they will be injured.

Barnes said work sites must be safe, "and the actual physical condition of the employee is very important."

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