Consulting with a professional to improve workplace safety can keep worker’s comp costs to a minimum
By Chris Freeburn

Mention the term “worker’s compensation,” and a shudder runs up the spine of many small business owners. Between the ever-increasing premiums and the indirect costs due to lost time and decreased productivity, expenses associated with worker’s compensation claims can now have a major impact on almost any small business’s bottom line. A sense of helplessness in the face of these rising costs is understandable, but, in fact, a whole new industry of ergonomic and safety consultants has arisen to assist small business owners in reining in their worker’s compensation costs.


On its face, such an industry might seem unnecessary since, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workplace injury rates are now at a record-low level—4.8 injuries per 100 workers in 2004—having dropped nearly 33 percent between 1997 and 2004. But during that same period, medical costs associated with those injuries increased at a clip of nearly 10 percent a year. All told, public and private worker’s compensation funds will pay out well over $100 billion this year in medical costs and lost-time wages for the more than four million injured workers. Even more alarming, business experts estimate that the total indirect costs of these claims, borne mainly by employers, could be anywhere from two to five times larger.

“The good news, though, is that 100 percent of these injuries are preventable,” says Shawnalea Shelly, an occupational therapist of 18 years who now counsels businesses on improving the productivity and safety of their employees. “Most of the time, if the employees had only known what not to do or actions to avoid, their injuries would never have taken place.”

Shelly, who works for the West Coast-based Therapeutic Associates, Inc., says that even for small companies with an established safety program, having an ergonomic consultant or occupational therapist come in and review your employees’ habits and actions often reduces injury rates by as much as 20 percent. If there is no pre-existing program, she claims the injury rate often drops 70 or 80 percent after a consultation.

These results typically cut across companies of every size and in every industry, but according to Shelly, small businesses, in particular, often fail to recognize their value. “Small businesses typically have a false sense of security,” she explains. “But just because they’ve never had a claim doesn’t mean there aren’t potential injuries waiting to be exposed two, five, or ten years down the road.” Additionally, Shelly notes that in many small businesses “people are quietly working with discomfort and aren’t being as productive as they could be, which often ends up increasing a company’s health care premiums because of higher utilization and more trips to the doctor.”

Still, Shelly acknowledges that for a small business owner on a tight budget the most important question is: What’s the return on my investment? “For a small company of 15 employees in an office, I would typically do a one-hour-long educational session with all the workers that runs around $500, coupled with 15-minute ergonomic assessments of each individual employee and their workspace at a rate of $200-an-hour,” she explains. “Now, compare that roughly $1300 to the typical employer costs associated with just a single worker’s compensation claim of carpal tunnel syndrome, which, on average, results in 31 missed workdays and close to $10,000 in indirect costs like lost time, decreased productivity, and lowered morale.”

Of course, before hiring any ergonomic or injury prevention consultant, it’s imperative that you perform the same due diligence you would with any other vendor. Shelly recommends only using firms that employ both industrial engineers and occupational or physical therapists. “You’re looking for somebody that not only has some kind of workplace safety certification but clinical background and experience, too,” she notes. “But don’t be afraid to ask what other clients they’ve worked for and what experience they have in your particular industry, as well.”

To find a list of reputable companies, a good place to start would be the websites for the National Safety Council,, as well as the Board of Certified Professional Ergonomists,, and the American Physical Therapists Association,


Chris Freeburn is an associate editor/writer for Business 24/7 magazine.