Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders in the Workplace
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) affect the muscles, nerves and tendons. Work related MSDs (including those of the neck, upper extremities and low back) are one of the leading causes of lost workday injury and illness. Workers in many different industries and occupations can be exposed to risk factors at work, such as lifting heavy items, bending, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body postures and performing the same or similar tasks repetitively. Exposure to these known risk factors for MSDs increases a worker’s risk of injury.
But work-related MSDs can be prevented. Ergonomics — fitting a job to a person — helps lessen muscle fatigue, increases productivity and reduces the number and severity of work-related MSDs.
Impact of MSDs in the Workplace
Work related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time.
- In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that industries with the highest MSD* rates include health care, transportation and warehousing, retail and wholesale trade and construction.
- According to BLS, the 387,820 MSD cases accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases in 2011.
A Process for Protecting Workers
Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their workers. In the workplace, the number and severity of MSDs resulting from physical overexertion, as well as their associated costs, can be substantially reduced by applying ergonomic principals.
Implementing an ergonomic process has been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of developing MSDs in industries as diverse as construction, food processing, office jobs, healthcare, beverage delivery and warehousing. The following are important elements of an ergonomic process:
- Provide Management Support – A strong commitment by management is critical to the overall success of an ergonomic process. Management should define clear goals and objectives for the ergonomic process, discuss them with their workers, assign responsibilities to designated staff members, and communicate clearly with the workforce.
- Involve Workers – A participatory ergonomic approach, where workers are directly involved in worksite assessments, solution development and implementation is the essence of a successful ergonomic process. Workers can:
- Identify and provide important information about hazards in their workplaces.
- Assist in the ergonomic process by voicing their concerns and suggestions for reducing exposure to risk factors and by evaluating the changes made as a result of an ergonomic assessment.
- Provide Training – Training is an important element in the ergonomic process. It ensures that workers are aware of ergonomics and its benefits, become informed about ergonomics related concerns in the workplace, and understand the importance of reporting early symptoms of MSDs.
- Identify Problems – An important step in the ergonomic process is to identify and assess ergonomic problems in the workplace before they result in MSDs.
- Encourage Early Reporting of MSD Symptoms – Early reporting can accelerate the job assessment and improvement process, helping to prevent or reduce the progression of symptoms, the development of serious injuries, and subsequent lost-time claims.
- Implement Solutions to Control Hazards – There are many possible solutions that can be implemented to reduce, control or eliminate workplace MSDs.
- Evaluate Progress – Established evaluation and corrective action procedures need to be in place to periodically assess the effectiveness of the ergonomic process and to ensure its continuous improvement and long-term success. As an ergonomic process is first developing, assessments should include determining whether goals set for the ergonomic process have been met and determining the success of the implemented ergonomic solutions.
Note: An ergonomic process uses the principles of an Injury and Illness Prevention Program to address MSD hazards. Such a process should be viewed as an ongoing function that is incorporated into the daily operations, rather than as an individual project.