Employers who invest in workplace health and safety programs are seeing measurable results in the reductions in workers' comp injuries, and as the numbers of employers making those investments has risen in recent years, nationwide rates of many common types of on-the-job injuries have fallen. However, according to an article published by Risk & Insurance Magazine, shoulder injuries are a notable exception to that trend, with some workers' comp experts seeing an upward tick in lost-time claims for these injuries. Others are seeing rates of claims for shoulder injuries remain stubbornly constant, even as the frequency of lost-time claims for injuries to most body parts fell by an average of 13.9 percent.
Compounding this problem, according to that article, is the fact that arm and shoulder injuries, which account for more than 15 percent of injuries, are generally more problematic and complex than injuries to other body parts, requiring longer recovery times than most other common types of workers' comp injuries. Additionally, common rotator cuff injuries and other shoulder injuries often require surgical treatment, which can make returning an employee to jobs that require overhead lifting challenging or even impossible. These issues mean that workers' comp claims for shoulder injuries tend to be open longer and cost more than those related to other injury types – facts that have led an increasing number of employers to become interested in effective strategies for preventing these injuries.
"Make sure the worker fits the job."
That is the advice offered by one of several workplace health and safety experts quoted in the Risk & Insurance article, and it is very sound advice indeed. But what’s the best way to ensure that workers you hire fit the physical demands of your workplace? The answer: a candidate Physical Ability Test (PAT). Implementing a Physical Ability Test program in your workplace can help you screen out candidates who would struggle with the physical demands of the jobs for which they have applied – candidates who would be at higher than average risk of sustaining injuries, either to their shoulders or elsewhere.
Physical Ability Tests are designed – based on a thorough job demands analysis – to test a person's ability to perform the essential functions of a specific job safely and efficiently. This means that if your company offers positions that involve overhead lifting or repetitive/prolonged overhead work, a potential new hire who passes a candidate physical ability test designed for one of those jobs will have proven their ability to handle the unique physical challenges of this type of strenuous work, thus reducing their risk of shoulder injuries and your risk of facing long, drawn-out and expensive workers' comp claims related to these injuries.
If your jobs require high demands on the shoulder or arm, your Physical Ability Test should likely include above-waist lifting and prolonged or repetitive overhead reaching as key components of the screens developed – depending, of course, on the actual requirements of the jobs in questions. The maximum weight used, the duration of the static or prolonged reaching, the number of repetitions for repetitive reaching, and the reach height are all customized to the job in order to be ADA and EEOC compliant. In addition, if applicants report a history of previous shoulder injury or demonstrate restricted shoulder motion during the initial pre-test musculoskeletal evaluation, the clinician administering the screen will measure shoulder range of motion and strength to make sure the shoulder is safe to be tested, as well as to achieve baseline measurements. Should the applicant pass the test, go on to be hired and later re-injure the shoulder, these measures provide a baseline for future rehabilitation and recovery. This can be especially important in those states allowing apportionment when calculating an employer’s liability for a workers’ compensation claim.
It’s worth pointing out that the shoulder joint undergoes a lot more force than many employers realize. For example, in trucking it takes approximately 60 lb. of upward force to lift the hood of the cab on a tractor trailer rig. It takes at least 75 lb. of horizontal force to pull the fifth wheel release and over 100 lb. to tighten up straps or chains on a flatbed load. And these examples are from just one industry. Your workers’ shoulders likely sustain a great deal of force; PAT can help you be sure they can carry the load.