Dem Bones, Dem Bones
Oct 31, 2019

Can we all say "musculoskeletal," kids? How about "ergonomics"? Can we all say that? Apparently not often enough according to new research from Utah in the current issue of EHS. Trigger warning: what follows is damning, hard to read, and may make it difficult for you to look in the mirror tomorrow morning.

Think about the following sentences long and hard: "More than 47,000 people die annually from opioid overdoses in the U.S. This is equivalent to roughly 130 deaths per day, close to five per hour, or one every 12 minutes. In just under 20 years, opioid overdose death rates have increased almost 500%. Why? One reason is workplace musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs); they've recently been identified as a key factor in opioid-related overdose deaths." Let's take a closer look at those MSDs. Start with this: the research showed that "57% of those who died from opioid-related deaths had at least one prior workplace MSD. The highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths occur in industries with higher injury rates and physically demanding working conditions, including regular forceful exertions." We all know, of course, that comp injuries can lead all too often to prescriptions for opioids and then to addiction. We blame the pill-happy docs for this connection. It's true that recent changes in comp claim management and drug formularies have slowed the rate of new addictions, but that's all after the horse is out of the barn.

This new research looks at root causes and the big cause appears to be a lack of decent ergonomic consideration in the design and management of a whole raft of physically demanding jobs in industries like construction, agriculture, material moving occupations, maintenance/repair, transportation, production, food preparation, waste management, and healthcare. These are the industries driving 57% of the opioid epidemic. The report is unambiguous. MSDs occur most often at companies lacking an ergonomics process.

The EHS report concludes: "It is undeniable that workplace MSDs contribute to the opioid crisis, and poor workplace ergonomics is a recognized contributor to MSDs. It is critical that workplace interventions be implemented to address the workplace hazards that lead to injuries for which opioids are prescribed." In other words, the opioid epidemic has a number of enablers and one of them may be us. Are you and your colleagues in risk management addressing MSDs aggressively enough? Lives are being wasted by premature deaths and disability from drug dependency. What more do we need to do to make certain that we in risk management are part of the cure and not part of the cause?

This is not a trivial question. In the most urgent and real way, lives depend on the answer.

 

The Last Mile Problem

There's an old saying in the logistics community, "the last mile is the longest mile." Getting a package across the country? A relative snap. Getting the same package from your regional warehouse to the customer? Don't ask. As we noted in a recent issue, some companies are looking at self-driving delivery vans as an answer, but others are getting serious about delivery drones. What are the possible risk implications if one of your operations wants to try drone delivery?

First thing - don't panic, or at least not in a way your CFO might detect. Second, take a look at this recent article from the LA Times which provides an excellent survey of the real life questions coming to the fore as more companies start taking drone delivery seriously. Outfits like Amazon and UPS are in early experimental stages of trying drone delivery. Amazon, you may not be surprised to learn, sees a secondary benefit to drones, beyond efficient package to buyer completion. They are thinking about using drone mounted cameras to scan your property as the drone lands to make suggestions for other things you might want to buy. (Yes, gentle reader, that is an example of why Jeff Bezos has more money than God.)

As with self-driving vehicles, the technology is moving along quickly, but that's the relatively easy part. There are still questions about how drone delivery systems will navigate privacy and trespassing issues and concerns about noise, all matters dear to risk management.

The Times article quotes Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College*: "Legal precedent is very thin here. Little of the existing law is based specifically on drones." The FAA is responsible for drones in the air, but issues such as privacy and noise abatement are left to the states and local governments. For example, while many local governments forbid the use of drones for surveillance purposes, it's unclear whether the activities described in Amazon's data analysis patent would fall under that definition.

Most current privacy and aircraft noise standards were established long before the advent of electric drones, let alone potential drone delivery operations. As with self-driving vehicles, the technology has vaulted ahead of the law while legislatures struggle to catch up.

Oh, what if your package gets dropped on your customer's noodle or poodle instead of delivered gracefully? Some good news. Normal concepts of liability will probably apply, based on existing laws concerning more conventional delivery methods. As with any subcontracted service, assuming you hire out drone deliveries, your service contract will need to spell out these details as far as current law describes them. Just like autonomous delivery vans. Drones may not be arriving or departing from your loading docks just yet, but if your business model involves a fulfillment and delivery process, it's a good bet drones lurk in your future. As Hamlet tells Horatio, "the readiness is all." As usual, the Bard of Avon nailed it.

*Check out the Center at https://dronecenter.bard.edu for more information on this cutting edge organization.

Picture of a drone flying.

 
A Wing drone hovers about 23 feet in the air before lowering a package to the ground by tether in Christiansburg, VA, on Friday. (Matt Gentry / Roanoke Times via AP))

 

Quick Take 1:
Halloween at the Office/ Workplace

Everything changes, even Halloween. As a risk manager, you share some of the concerns with your colleagues over in HR. After all, lawsuits arising from Halloween misadventures are not good for anyone's liability funding or those sensitive renewals with your carrier.

A current item from the Albany Times Union is typical of current thinking on what to do and not do around office festivities to avoid the displeasure of employees and external organizations who may know a good lawyer. A few hints to the wise:

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Don't decorate with ghastly or gruesome décor: some people may be "triggered" by severed limbs, eyeballs, and other gore.

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No drag or ethnic costumes: some transgender people may see drag as mocking them as may some employees with strong ethnic ties.

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"Halloween": quite a few people nowadays find Halloween itself offensive for a variety of reasons. Have a Harvest Festival instead.

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Make the rules clear: this applies to any seasonal festivity at the office/workplace. Remind everyone of what is and is not permitted under company policies.

 
Oh, yes - almost forgot the number one recommendation - no Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi costumes/masks. Seriously. Employee holiday events should promote unity and team feeling. Need we point out that anything even remotely political in this year of grace, 2019, will probably not further those goals?

Need more advice? Here's a top ten set of suggestions from a respected law firm on how to get through Halloween and other holidays without getting sued. Now, was that scary enough?

 

Quick Take 2:
Notes on an Old Timetable

The railroad historian Hal Carstens wrote a column about the old days on the railroads when steam was king, recalling how things were done back when. He called his column "Notes on an old timetable." Well, here's a different look back. This august Journal has commented several times on the dangers of sleep deprivation and how this can be a powerful, hidden risk factor when your people drive trucks, operate heavy machinery (like trains) - or even make important decisions involving large amounts of money or customer service.

New research reported last week by the National Safety Council reminds us that this remains true - and may even be getting worse. "More than 1 out of 3 U.S. working adults aren't getting enough sleep, and the prevalence of sleep deprivation has increased significantly since 2010 [emphasis added], according to researchers from Ball State University." Should you worry? Well, let's say some of your employees drive on company business. Cars, delivery vans, big rigs - makes no difference; all of the following apply when your people are sleep derived:

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You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are fatigued.

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More than 5,000 people died in drowsy-driving related crashes in 2014.

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Losing even two hours of sleep is similar to the effect of having three beers.

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Being awake for more than 20 hours is the equivalent of being legally drunk.

 
Too little sleep equals legally drunk. Contemplate that. When we were college kids we thought blowing off sleep was part of growing up. So, tell me - are we any smarter now? Or do we think like we're still dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks undergrads?

Daylight savings ends on November 3. Even that one hour change can be temporarily disorienting and disrupt sleep patterns. Might be a good time to remind everyone who drives on your risk nickel to get enough shut eye. Don't let anyone wake up in a pile of twisted metal.

A man asleep on his steering wheel

 
Steering wheels don't make great pillows.

 

Words to Remember

"When a situation exists that creates loss of life, injury and suffering; when it costs a king's ransom annually, when its cure has been demonstrated to be practical; and when all are agreed that something can and should be done about it, it is time to stop talking, roll up the sleeves and go to work."

Herbert William Heinrich, from Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach, 1931

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