Mark W. McFarland, DO
Workplace injuries are very common, no matter how careful and mindful a worker or an employer may be. Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs) are the largest category of workplace injuries. They occur frequently and are a very expensive problem for employees and companies across the country. WMSDs are a group of painful injuries and disorders that affect the human body’s movement system (muscles, tendons, ligaments, discs, and nerves).
Common WMSDs include, but are not limited to:
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Tension Neck Syndrome
- Trigger Finger
- Degenerative Disc Disease
- Muscle/Tendon Sprain
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that U.S. companies spent $50 Billion on direct costs of MSDs in 2011, with the average injury having a direct cost of $15,000. Indirect costs of MSDs can reach up to five times the direct costs. The economic and human costs of WMSDs are largely preventable. The risk of injury can be greatly minimized when simple safety steps are implemented by the worker and employer: taking breaks, allowing for rest and stretching during the workday, insuring that the workspace is set up properly (to include equipment) which allows for consistent, safe movement.
Repetitive motion often contributes to these injuries, however, recent research points instead to multiple risk factors as the cause for WMSDs. These risk factors include task-related issues, such as force, repetition, and poor posture. They also include individual risk factors, such as poor work awareness/practices, poor physical fitness, and poor health habits. Multiple factors combine to introduce fatigue. Once fatigue is part of the equation, there is a greater magnification of risk and an injury may occur over time.
Ergonomics is the applied science of arranging/modifying the workspace to safely and efficiently accommodate and assist the worker in performing the movements required in their job. If you have a job that requires a lot of bending, lifting, stooping, moving things, proper ergonomics are very important to ensure your continued safety and productivity while at work. It is the responsibility of the employer and the employee to meet the ergonomic standards necessary for the job.
There are three primary ergonomic risk factors:
High Risk Repetition – Many tasks are repetitive by nature. When coupled with daily production targets, injury can result over time. Often, high force or awkward positioning/postures are part of the production process, which can also increase injury risk.
Forceful Exertion – Many tasks require us to use muscle effort to achieve the high force load required to complete a task. This can increase the likelihood for fatigue, which can lead to WMSD.
Repetitive or Sustained Awkward Positions – These positions can put excessive load on joints and overload muscles or tendons. Risk of WMSD increases with sustained awkward positions, particularly if short (or no) recovery or rest time is permitted.
We mentioned both workplace risk factors and individual risk factors, so let’s discuss individual risk factors:
- Poor work practices – Poor body mechanics and lifting techniques introduce unnecessary risk factors that can increase fatigue and decrease the body’s ability to recover.
- Poor overall health habits – workers who smoke, are obese, practice poor nutritional habits, lack physical fitness, and who are not properly hydrated, put themselves at a higher risk of developing musculoskeletal and chronic health problems.
- Poor rest and recovery – WMSDs develop when fatigue is stronger than the workers’ recovery system. People who do not get adequate rest put themselves at a higher risk for musculoskeletal imbalance and injury.
Exposure to all of these risk factors puts workers at a higher level of WMSD risk. The factors mentioned above can contribute to fatigue, which leads to musculoskeletal imbalance, and eventually a WMSD. Injuries arise when people do not follow these simple guidelines. It is very important that workers take responsibility for their health and wellness by getting proper nutrition, exercise, and practicing appropriate safety and work hygiene when on the job.