Nearly one million people in the United States lose time from work each year due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), at an estimated annual cost of $54 billion. In recent years, U.S. policy-makers have debated and adopted ergonomic work standards. But despite the economic and policy importance of ergonomic controls and workplace MSDs, economists have virtually ignored the effect of ergonomic interventions on productivity.
Researchers recruited some 200 office workers to participate voluntarily in a study of ergonomics and productivity. The setting was a governmental agency that collects sales taxes, a State Department of Revenue. Study participants were assigned to one of three groups: a control group; a group that received office ergonomic training; and a group that received a highly adjustable chair and training. Data on health outcomes, absenteeism and productivity were collected before and after the intervention.
The study found that training alone did not have a significant effect on either health or productivity. But the chair-with-training intervention improved productivity by nearly 18 per cent over the year due to a reduction in workers’ pain and more effective use of workspaces. Surprisingly, neither intervention affected sick leave hours – the most common business metric used to evaluate the effectiveness of ergonomic interventions.
This paper contrasts with the existing economic literature on MSDs and ergonomic control in two important ways. First, it uses data derived from a controlled experiment conducted in a field setting. Second, the study focused on individuals who were not at risk for an acute or disabling musculoskeletal injury. Thus, this study examines the cost-effectiveness of ergonomic controls in a regular business environment.
The findings may be of interest to five different audiences: first, policy-makers at both the government level who consider the social costs and benefits of ergonomic work standards; second, government occupational safety and health agency regulators; third, health and safety corporate officers considering the type of work standards that might be most appropriate in an office setting; fourth, business managers seeking to improve the performance of their employees; and fifth, researchers interested in the relationship between individual health and economic outcomes.