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Lost production, higher insurance premiums, OSHA fines, worker’s compensation, employee turnover, medical costs; and the list goes on. These are just a few of the things employers can look forward to as a result of poor ergonomics.
Ergonomics is the relationship between a worker and his/her work environment or simply “fitting jobs to people”. Unfortunately, not all of the hype surrounding ergonomics is a passing phase. It’s a real problem that is crippling the lives of the people it affects, many of which are sitting in the call centers we provide.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 1981 there were 23,000 cases of job related injuries caused by repeat traumas such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Today, that number has soared to 332,000; over a 1400 percent increase! Experts attribute this to the explosion of computer use in the workplace. These numbers continue to escalate as the world becomes more computer dependent.
As one could guess, these repeat traumas aren’t cheap. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the average carpal tunnel syndrome case requiring surgery costs an astounding $35,000.00. What’s more, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that employers spend around $120 billion a year in direct and indirect costs related to poor ergonomics. Approximately one-third of workers compensation dollars are spent on repetitive motion injuries; injuries often found in call centers.
There are also several non-quantifiable, indirect costs associated with poor ergonomics. They include higher insurance premiums, higher employee turnover, medical treatments (therapy, medications, surgery), OSHA fines, absenteeism, associated labor costs, production loss, legal fees, personnel replacement, claims, administrative costs, worker’s compensation, lost benefits, etc Because there is no steadfast method of measuring these indirect costs, it is very hard to pinpoint just how much these ergonomic injuries are costing call centers.
Productivity is the staple in a successful call center. No industry understands that better than ours. Whether it is an inbound, outbound or blended center, without healthy, able-bodied employees, you might as well close your call center’s doors. In fact, it is estimated that ergonomically healthy employees are 20 – 40 more percent productive.
PREVENTION – THE BEST MEDICINE
Just a few doses of preventative medicine can be thousands of dollars cheaper than the medical costs associated with a cumulative trauma disorder. To pay for one cumulative trauma, a call center would lose the productivity of almost two agents!
There are definite precautions that call center administrators can take to safeguard their centers from poor ergonomic injuries. They include conducting a site assessment of potentially hazardous work areas, modifying agent work areas to be conducive to good ergonomic positioning and posture, and implementing a training plan of all agents to properly use the ergonomic equipment already in place.
Conducting a site assessment – This is a service usually conducted by an occupational health care organization. Some call center design firms also offer this service. The important thing to remember is to make sure that whomever does the assessment must have the correct training and credentials for it to be truly valid.
Usually in a site assessment, the call center site is examined to identify situations that may cause agents to retain injuries that could otherwise be prevented with ergonomically correct equipment and work practices. In this process, everything should be accurately documented and later evaluated to submit an optimal recommendation for each unique individual.
Modifying agent work areas – After a complete assessment is made of each agent’s work area, you may need to modify the workstation they sit at to make it “ergonomically friendly” to each individual. The number one thing to consider when designing the workstation is that it should have maximum adjustability. This allows each agent on each shift to adjust the workstation for his/her own ergonomic needs.
So, what equipment is essential to promote good ergonomics in a call center?
Adjustable Chair – This is the number one consideration. And since the center will purchase a chair for each agent anyway, it is important to take the time to research which chair fits your center’s specific needs. The most important feature to look for is that it provides maximum adjustability.
Adjustable Keyboard Mechanism – The keyboard mechanism selected should also allow for maximum adjustability. The keyboard needs to be able to tilt and adjust to accommodate each agent’s needs.
Wrist Rest – Although not resting your wrists on anything is optimal, human nature is to practice what is comfortable, like resting the wrist on the work surface. This puts unnecessary pressure on the wrist area. The best wrist rests should allow for some “give”, such as the gel-filled rests. They provide a comfortable feel in the neutral position without putting unneeded stress on the carpal area.
Adjustable Height Monitor Riser – A monitor riser can save much of the stress put on an agent’s neck and eyes. It is important that the monitor is not put in an awkward head position. Monitor risers are available with adjustable arms, optimal for multi-shift call centers, or with simple riser blocks.
Headsets – When agents have to hold onto a telephone receiver, it is difficult to use a computer at the same time. As a result, agents often squeeze the hand piece between their ear and shoulder. This puts a great amount of pressure on the agent’s neck. Headsets not only provide an ergonomic solution, they also allow the agent to be more productive. Other items such as adjustable height workstations, footrests, glare screens and document holders assist in good ergonomics. The foremost thing to consider is that the ergonomic equipment should be tailored to the agents that will be using it, creating an exact ergonomic match to each person’s specific needs.
Implement a training plan – Although poor site design is a contributing factor to serious injuries, 80 percent of all injuries are caused by damaging work behaviors. Call centers can equip their agents with all of the right equipment, but without proper training, it is all fruitless. The site assessment will point out which type of training program will fit your needs best. It’s very important to not only implement the training program but also to use a follow-up plan that will continue to reinforce what the agents have been taught.
PAY NOW or PAY LATER
By now you’re thinking, “My budget is slim as it is. How could I ever afford to implement an ergonomics program?” With the escalating costs of cumulative trauma injuries, the fact is you can’t afford not to implement a program.
Implementing an ergonomics plan not only makes good business sense, soon the law will mandate it. OSHA has proposed, and is currently making its way through Congress, a new set of ergonomic standards for all businesses, including call centers, to adhere to across the nation. The new standards mandate all businesses to implement a workplace safety and health program to prevent occurrences of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. When this legislation has passed, all businesses must adhere to this directive.
There is good news though. Employers who have implemented a safety and health program before the effective date of the rule may continue to implement their current program if it satisfies the parameters of the Act. By implementing your call center’s ergonomics program now, you may be able to be “grandfather claused” out of the new legislation and avoid very costly governmental fines down the road.
In short, in an industry that relies so heavily on its labor pool, it is important that its laborers are in the best possible physical and mental condition as possible. By providing a work area that is ergonomically friendly and that the agents are correctly trained to use, you not only are saving their bodies, you could also be saving your call center thousands of dollars. Prevention, in this industry, just makes good business sense.
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