Occupational Therapist Provide Ergonomics Expertise

Given the current economic state, many business owners and employers are looking for more ways to reduce costs. Some of the ways that employers do this is by preventing work-related injuries, improving employee job retention, and increasing workers' comfort and productivity. To compete in the marketplace and protect their most valuable resource—employees—they often consult occupational therapy practitioners who specialize in workplace ergonomics. Occupational therapists examine the work environment and make practical recommendations.

Ergonomics is the science of matching the work environment to fit the worker, not making the worker fit the environment. Occupational therapists recognize that they may not be able to entirely eliminate hazards in the workplace, but they can help identify and minimize workers' exposure to them.

Occupational therapists can provide a wide range of services, such as helping employers to comply with the requirements of the American with Disabilities Act, evaluating and modifying tool and equipment design, and determining and reducing injury risk factors. For workers who have had an injury, occupational therapy practitioners can help them to return to work faster, increase their comfort, and suggest work changes to regain productivity.

Occupational therapy practitioners apply their ergonomics expertise in environments ranging from home offices to hospitals to manufacturing plants. Ergonomics really crosses all aspects of employment. This can be from workstation design in an office setting to the physical demands of industrial work. The recommendations that occupational therapy practitioners make in these work environments are very diverse, and could include advice on minimizing noise, changing the lighting, or helping a worker organize tasks so that he or she can complete a job more efficiently.

Evaluations typically are done just once and, although the process can vary, it follows the same essential pattern. For example, someone working in an office that suffered a back injury outside of work and is trying to return to work might have trouble with sustained sitting. The occupational therapy practitioner would visit the work site and look at the workstation. He or she might notice a bad chair. Although the chair might be changed or adjusted, if the worker can sit only for a short time and the job requires constant sitting, a problem still exists. An occupational therapy practitioner may be able to modify the workstation so the person can do a combination of sitting and standing. Often, the ability to move, take mini-breaks, or adjust a position will allow someone to still be productive in their work environment.

The person or organization that typically refers or requests an ergonomics evaluation or intervention depends on the point at which someone identifies a need or a problem. If the case is patient-specific, the referral will follow more of a medical model. If there is somebody you're trying to get back to work, but there's a difficulty with, say, sustained sitting, the case manager, the physician, or supervisor may identify that the work-site evaluation needs to occur. In other cases, workers' compensation insurance companies or upper management might require an ergonomics consultation.

Employers sometimes hesitate to bring an ergonomics expert onboard to analyze their work site out of fear that implementing changes will be prohibitively expensive. There's sometimes the initial perception that you're opening a can of worms with ergonomic interventions, but often occupational therapists can identify a problem and make adjustments with the existing equipment, which becomes much more cost effective option then having an injured employee. Occupational therapy practitioners gather all possible information so they can understand why a business requires what it requires of its workers, and they look for the most cost-effective solution.

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Colin Moore is an occupational therapist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Visit www.svhealthcare.org to learn more about SVMC and the rehabilitation program. “Health Matters” is a weekly column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.