WEST FARGO — It didn’t take long for Crystal Nelson to discover her passion was preventing injuries.
Nelson is an occupational therapist, as well as a certified ergonomics specialist, who recently opened Fargo Ergonomics Occupational Health here at 345 11th St. W. She’s seen people who suffer from a long line of preventable injuries, many of them musculoskeletal disorder symptoms: carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes, tendonitis, rotator cuff disorders.
“It made so much more sense to me if I could get to them before the injury happened,” Nelson said.
That’s the ultimate goal of ergonomics, the design of spaces people live and work in for optimal safety and efficiency, and their application is something of a specialty. Nelson is a rarity in the Fargo-Moorhead area: she’s an independent certified ergonomics specialist. Typically, that means she goes into an employee’s work setting to assess the best possible positions to place computer monitors, keyboards, desk heights and chairs.
“Basically, if you have a job you qualify for an ergonomic assessment,” Nelson said.
It’s a career that fits beautifully into her passion for prevention.
She felt so passionate about it she opened her own clinic, complete with a gym and physical therapy room, where injuries, and more importantly, solutions can be assessed and addressed.
Preventable work-related injuries are a big problem that can come with a big price tag. Nelson said estimates show a worker gone for more than five days due to an injury can cost a company an average of $87,000.
“That’s just for the injury,” she said. “That doesn’t even consider wages. It doesn’t consider your productivity going down, or maybe other employees having to take on more work. That is just the cost of the injury, alone, for medical expenses.”
As a provider for North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance, the state’s workers’ compensation agency, most of her clients come as referrals.
“I knew there was a need for an independent clinic like this one,” she said.
The numbers bear her out.
The strain of the numbers
More than one-third of work-related injuries trace back to ergonomics, according to workers’ compensation claims submitted to WSI from 2015 through 2017.
“A lot of these injuries are preventable,” said Randy Wegge, a WSI loss control specialist who also oversees the agency’s Ergonomic Initiative Grant Program.
According to WSI’s 2018 performance evaluation, 35% of all reported claims are ergonomic-related, with the most common injuries being sprains and strains. In total, ergonomics claims accounted for 36% of the frequency of claims, 28% of the total claims paid, and 27% of the total incurred costs, which from 2015 through 2017 amounted to $62,862,584. Of that amount, $56,944,508 were caused by sprains and strains alone.
The grant program, which has been in place since 2009, helps defray the costs of an ergonomic assessment, any recommended equipment post-assessment, and associated educational costs.
“A lot of times,” Wegge said, “it’s difficult for employers to put money up in front of problems that haven’t happened yet.”
Through the grant initiative, WSI will pay for 75% of the professional fees of an assessment by an approved ergonomics provider, then a committee will review reimbursement costs related to any recommended equipment, awarding anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, and 100% of ergonomic educational services are covered.
Wegge said the umbrella grants were started to change the course of what they were seeing in their claims prior to 2009.
“What we were doing, in a lot of cases” he said, “was reacting to injuries.”
Partnerships equal prevention
WSI isn’t the only partnership Nelson has fostered.
InterOffice, 1630 1st Ave. N. in Fargo, a company that designs work spaces with a blend of design, function, comfort, and safety, is a business Nelson turns to often. She pointed out it’s important to turn to professionals who also have certified ergonomics specialists on staff.
Levi Hanson, a “workplace expert” at InterOffice, is one such specialist.
“Offices today are changing,” Hanson said. “A lot of people are storing files in the cloud as opposed to cabinets.”
As modern office footprints change, he said, there is room for more employees, and an opportunity for companies to incorporate ergonomic principles into design or redesign. Sometimes those areas might come as a surprise.
“Lighting is a big part of ergonomics,” he said.
Hanson said he’s seeing more office cubicle walls coming down, thereby allowing more natural light to enter the workplace. That’s a good thing, he said, because natural lighting is better than harsh overheads.
He also estimated that 75% of the clients who seek him out do so because of lower back pain concerns, most of them looking for a more comfortable office chair or help finding a height-adjustable desk.
It’s an industry, he said, that’s rapidly changing and expanding.
“It’s something that we’re learning more and more about, monthly and yearly,” Hanson said, “the effects of working the way we do.”
A room of one’s own
Nelson employs two part-timers at Fargo Ergonomics Occupational Health, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist.
Sarah Wilson, the occupational therapist, has been in the industry for two decades. Like Nelson, she was looking to forge a career in “a caring field,” and her reasons for joining Nelson at the 4,000-square-foot clinic reveal they’re like-minded soldiers on the same field.
Occupation therapy, Wilson said, helps people regain independence and live at maximum physical and mental potential.
“We can do so many things within the clinic,” Wilson said.
Most people are spending a majority of their time at work, and no matter what the setting, she said it’s important to have the tools and resources to reduce the risk of injury.
“The overall goal is that they are returning to their daily living activities safely, healthy, and feeling good about what they do,” she said.
When you feel good, she said, you have more energy, focus, and attention, and that increases safety and production.
“That’s important to businesses and employees,” Wilson said.
Nelson did her first ergonomic assessment in 2010, and by 2014 she says she had the opportunity to own her own business. Fargo Ergonomics Occupational Health was officially created in 2016. If they don’t have much competition, she said, it’s because ergonomic issues aren’t often enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While personal protective equipment may be required, she said, crouching too long or lifting too much in that gear isn’t, and many businesses don’t know how much an injury will cost them until it happens.
And, she said, it’s not just businesses. How mothers and fathers cradle their infants; how drivers are seated behind the wheel in their vehicles; hand placement while cooking, gardening, or playing a musical instrument; how someone carries a laptop case, purse, or wears a backpack—all are ergonomics issues, and not everyone understands the importance of doing them correctly.
She hopes to change all of that.
Nelson said her biggest challenge is helping people understand what she does.
“And helping people see the benefit of injury prevention,” Nelson said, “especially for businesses.”
Her ultimate goal is to help companies reduce their injury rates.
“If I can see those numbers decline after I’ve worked with them and their employees,” she said, “then I would say one of my goals was accomplished.”
WHAT: Fargo Ergonomics Occupational Health
WHERE: 345 11th St. W., West Fargo
CONTACT: (701) 532-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
WHERE: 1630 1st Ave. N. Suite A. Fargo
CONTACT: (701) 232-3013
WSI Reporting an injury information:
WSI First Report of Injury forms and links:
Performance Evaluation of North Dakota Workplace Safety & Insurance: