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When Employees Don't Complain: How to Recognize Hidden Health Risks and Correct Them

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Having great employees has a big unrecognized downside. Every manufacturer wants to have hard-working, highly motivated employees who want to keep working and making money, benefiting both the employees themselves and the company. Like the baseball players of old, such employees don't complain about ''minor'' aches and pains. They just suck it up and keep going.

This is particularly true of piece workers. (The more pieces such workers make, the more money they make.) But neither piece workers nor contented hourly workers want to stop working and stop earning. So, they may not pay attention to what their bodies are telling them. They may compensate for a discomfort in one part of their body by straining another part of the body. Worse, they may intentionally ignore their problems in order to keep the work and money flowing. Either way, they won’t tell you when they’re hurt.

But stoic employees who don’t complain don’t provide valuable feedback. You might not find out until years later that their workplace was ergonomically unsound, and only when serious cases of repetitive-motion injuries like carpal-tunnel syndrome and other arm, hand, and back injuries start to crop up. You may not know about dangerous noise levels until workers start losing their hearing. It may take years of exposure to toxic chemicals, dusts, etc. before a worker is diagnosed with silicosis, emphysema, or some other pulmonary disorder.

By then, of course, it would be too late. Besides being extremely expensive, such injuries ruin worker morale and can bring considerable bad publicity. Injuring workers, however inadvertently, isn’t right.

So what can you do when your good workers don’t complain, when their stoicism actually puts them and your business at risk of greater harm?

Don’t take a lack of complaints to mean a true lack of hidden problems. Probe beneath the surface. Become a workplace detective.

Do employees have to shout to make one another heard? Are they coughing frequently? Is there fine dust in the air? Are there contaminants settling on equipment? Observe a given worker’s station. Is he or she struggling to hold the piece? Is he or she showing any signs of discomfort such as squinting or wringing hands?

Talk to employees to see how they feel. Are they taking aspirin and ibuprofen to kill the nagging minor pains?

Further investigation and evaluation from a professional loss-control consultant may be warranted. Consider using an outsider for this. Someone promising confidentiality is more likely to elicit candid comments because good workers don’t want their bosses to think they’re complainers.

A competent loss-control professional can spot potential problems fairly easily. Next, conduct industrial-hygiene testing and employ an ergonomics specialist to see if any suspicions are truly problems.

An ergonomic expert can easily measure and evaluate employees’ workstations and observe the employees while they’re working. A certified industrial hygienist should measure ambient and impact noise levels using equipment such as noise-level meters and dosimeters. Standard testing equipment such as pumps and filters should be used to take air samples for airborne contaminants. The samples should be evaluated by a certified lab and the final analysis presented in an official report comparing your exposure levels to acceptable standards. Recommendations can then be developed to control your exposures.

The results should provide conclusive evidence. If your workers aren’t complaining because there truly aren’t any problems, congratulations. However, an investigation usually uncovers at least one shortcoming that probably will result in worker injuries over the long term.

There are two ways to attack any problem: Redesign the workplace to eliminate hazards, or give workers personal protective equipment like respirators and hearing protection. The former is always the better solution whenever feasible. While personal protective equipment works, it usually creates other hazards such as slips and falls and limited vision. Such gear is usually cumbersome and often hot and uncomfortable. In addition, management cannot always be there to supervise the employee who may decide not to wear such gear at all.

''Engineering out'' problems can involve putting up noise barriers to reduce noise and installing ventilation systems to bring air quality up to OSHA standards.

Poor ergonomic design can be a bit more difficult to detect than air contamination, pollution, or excessive noise. One of the most common problems is that one size does not fit all. A workstation that’s well designed for an average-height male can be agonizing for a short woman or a Shaq-sized guy.

Equipment should be made as adjustable as possible to fit each worker individually. Chairs should be fully adjustable, with adjustable seat height and back height. Employees should be able to raise or lower worktables to a comfortable height. Footrests and ergonomic keyboards can greatly reduce physical stress.

It may be impossible to completely remove the risk of repetitive injury for manufacturing workers doing repetitive assembly tasks, but good ergonomic design can greatly reduce that risk. Furthermore, employees should be encouraged to report physical problems. Early intervention can usually prevent a sore wrist from turning into carpal tunnel syndrome or a backache from blooming into a debilitating injury.

Improving worker health and safety isn’t a one-time effort. It takes continuing effort and diligence; otherwise, it can easily fall to the bottom of priorities. Besides taking commitment, it also takes money. But today’s investment will produce major savings down the road.

If you have motivated, productive workers, count your blessings. But don’t assume their silence means all is well.

About the Author

Peter Scala is a senior loss-control engineer with E.G. Bowman Company, New York City, an insurance brokerage and loss-control consulting firm that serves manufacturers and other businesses. He can be reached at or 212-425-8150.
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 exposure  health and safety  promotions  complaints  employers  manufacturing

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