Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors

Critical review of the relationship between musculoskeletal disorders and workplace factors such as job design and work organization.Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors

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Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are injuries or disorders that affect the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, or other soft tissues of the body. MSDs can cause pain, stiffness, numbness, tingling, or reduced function in the affected areas. MSDs are common among workers who perform tasks that involve physical factors such as force, repetition, posture, or vibration. Some examples of MSDs are neck pain, shoulder tendinitis,  carpal tunnel syndrome, and low back pain.

NIOSH Review Findings

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has conducted a critical review of the epidemiologic evidence for work-related MSDs of the neck, upper extremity, and low back . The review summarizes the scientific literature on the relationship between MSDs and workplace factors. For instance, job design, work organization, and psychosocial factors. The review also evaluates the quality and strength of the evidence. To clarify, it identifies gaps in knowledge, and provides recommendations for future research and prevention.

The main findings of the review are:

  • There is a large body of credible epidemiologic research that shows a consistent relationship between MSDs and certain physical factors, especially at higher exposure levels.
  • The evidence is strongest for work-related MSDs of the hand/wrist, followed by the shoulder and the elbow. The evidence is less consistent for work-related MSDs of the neck and the low back.
  • There is limited evidence for the role of individual factors, such as age, gender, and anthropometry, in modifying the risk of MSDs. There is also limited evidence for the role of psychosocial factors, such as job satisfaction, job stress, and social support, in influencing the occurrence or severity of MSDs.
  • There is a need for more research on the dose-response relationship between physical factors and MSDs, the interaction between physical and psychosocial factors, the effectiveness of ergonomic interventions in reducing MSDs, and the cost-benefit analysis of ergonomic programs.

Things to Remember

The review provides useful information for employers, workers, health professionals, and researchers who are interested in preventing work-related MSDs. The review also highlights the importance of ergonomics in designing tasks, work spaces, controls, displays, tools, lighting, and equipment to fit workers’ physical capabilities and limitations.
You can read the full review online or download it as a PDF file . You can also find more information about ergonomics and MSDs on the NIOSH website.


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What is a Musculoskeletal Disorder?

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) affect certain areas of the body. This includes muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, joints, nerves and spinal discs. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) divides MSDs into two categories: illness and injury. An injury happens when a worker can identify a time or date, they started to have pain. For example, pulling a muscle while lifting a heavy box.
Illnesses are harder to pin down. An illness is more insidious and onset. You can’t really figure out when exactly it happened. For many, it starts as simple soreness or a twinge of pain. Over time, the pain gets worse. This is often triggered by repetitive motion. Today, ergonomics professionals call this a slow progression cumulative trauma disorder, or musculoskeletal disorder illness.

5 Factors that Contribute to Musculoskeletal Disorders

There are five factors that contribute to musculoskeletal disorders. These actions or movements are done often in the workplace. Eventually, they can lead to injury and illness. Pain begins when employees do the following motions:

  1. Repetition. This is classified as frequency and speed over time. If you are doing something more than twice a minute, then it can be called repetitive. 
  2. Force. This includes gripping, pinching, lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling. 
  3. Posture. Awkward posture, or holding the same position for a long time, are MSD risk factors. 
  4. Contact stress. Sudden impact, or sustained pressure, on certain parts of the body can create strain.
  5. Vibration. There are two types of vibration: whole body and segmental hand-arm. Whole body is caused by moving floors, or activities like driving a machine. Segmental hand-arm occurs often through, like pneumatics guns or sanders.

A single factor isn’t likely to cause injury. Just one alone isn’t going to cause you to have a disorder. It’s usually a combination and from my experience, it’s usually three – when you get three of these risk factors together. For example, posture, force and repetition are the greatest factors in shoulder injuries. However, posture, force and vibration contribute the most to back injuries. 

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