Musculoskeletal Disorders in the Workplace


What are Musculoskeletal Disorders?

Workplace injuries vary from one-time incidents to conditions that occur over time. One type of long-term injury is musculoskeletal disorders that, when not properly treated, can be debilitating for workers. Musculoskeletal disorders can develop into cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), long-term musculoskeletal injuries caused by repeated work-related activities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) as “injuries or illnesses that result from overexertion or repetitive motion.” MSDs include soft-tissue injuries such as sprains, strains, tears, hernias and carpal tunnel syndrome. MSDs do not include disorders caused by slips, trips, falls, or similar incidents.

Examples of the types of illnesses related to MSDs are:

  • Carpel tunnel syndrome
  • Tendinitis
  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Epicondylitis
  • Trigger Finger
  • Muscle strains and low back injuries

Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines work-related MSDs as conditions where the work environment and performance contribute significantly to the injury. Musculoskeletal disorders can impact a company’s productivity and potentially cause increased health care, disability and workers’ compensation costs.

Effects of Musculoskeletal Disorders to the Workplace

Work-related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost work time, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they account for 30% of all workers’ compensation costs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that the incidence rate of MSD cases was 27.2% per 10,000 full-time workers, with a median of 12 days away from work for an MSD. Retail trade, manufacturing and healthcare/social assistance had 50% of all MSD cases in the private sector in 2018.

AmTrust claims data reflect the national findings:

  • The AmTrust Retail Risk Report found that lifting, pushing, pulling, repetitive motion, and using tools and machinery could all contribute to strain injuries to retail workers' lower back, shoulders, knees, and hands. Many of these repetitive tasks happen in a warehouse or stock room.
  • The AmTrust Restaurant Risk Report found that the second-highest cause of injury for restaurant workers on the premises was strain or injury by holding or carrying. Strain or injury by lifting injuries kept workers out of the job for, on average, 35.1 days.
  • The AmTrust Contractor Report shared that ladder falls and lifting strains are the most common causes of injuries for contractors. Strains from carrying heavy equipment and working in tight or awkward positions cause strain injuries, with repetitive motion strains causing twice as many lost days than other strains/injuries.

Musculoskeletal Disorders Risk Factors

Two categories of risk factors are related to MSDs: work-related and individual-related. Work-related exposures to these risk factors increase a worker’s chance of injury, such as:

  • Lifting heavy items
  • Bending
  • Reaching overhead
  • Pushing and pulling heavy loads
  • Working in awkward positions
  • Performing the same or similar tasks repeatedly

Individual risk factors include poor work practices, fitness or health habits. A prolonged combination of those three components increases the possibility of a musculoskeletal injury. Also, if a worker’s daily fatigue and recovery process are out of balance, the risk of MSDs increases.

Recent Trends for Musculoskeletal Injuries

While there have been improvements in workplace safety and ergonomic practices to relieve stress on workers, the frequency of musculoskeletal disorders has not decreased. One reason for this is that people are in worse physical shape compared to 15 years ago. Four reasons behind this trend include:

  • Aging and older workforce
  • Overweight workers
  • Less shoulder and upper body muscular strength
  • Downtime due to COVID-19 lockdowns

Early diagnosis and treatment of MSDs are critical but easier said than done as musculoskeletal disorders develop over time. Consistent workplace education and training for current workers and better match hiring can help to impact this trend.

Ergonomics in the Workplace

workplace ergonomic program can reduce stress and eliminate injuries associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture and repetitive tasks. Companies should incorporate an ergonomic process for their employees and encourage stretch breaks and other ways to help “break” some repetitive motions and promote positive work habits.

Components of an ergonomic process include:

  • Providing management support by defining clear goals and objectives for the program
  • Involving workers in assessment, solution and implementation of the ergonomic updates
  • Offering training to ensure employees understand the importance of ergonomics in the workplace
  • Identifying ergonomic issues before they result in MSDs
  • Encouraging early reporting of MSD symptoms to help reduce the progression of the injuries
  • Evaluating the progress of the program and updating procedures as needed

The CDC recommends a three-tier approach to developing workplace controls for reducing workplace and ergonomic hazards:

  • Engineering controls: Design the worksite by taking into account the worker's capabilities and limitations. For example, change a workstation layout by using a height-adjustable workbench, locating tools within short reaching distances or changing the way materials and products are transported.
  • Administrative controls: These controls can be temporary measures until engineering controls can be implemented. Examples would be reducing shift length, scheduling more breaks to allow rest and recovery, rotating workers and training.
  • Use of personal protective equipment (PPE): Personal protective equipment, such as respirators, earplugs, safety goggles and hard hats, provides a barrier between the worker and the hazard source. Braces, wrist splints, back belts, and similar devices can relieve some ergonomic hazards by reducing exposure duration, frequency, or intensity.

Exoskeleton Suits

The use of occupational exoskeleton technology, including exoskeleton suits, is one solution that can reduce a worker’s strain, fatigue and injury risk. Passive exoskeleton devices can be used to brace the spine when lifting and holding loads, support arms and shoulders during sustained overhead work and reinforce the ankle, knee and hip joints when carrying heavy materials. However, exoskeleton suit configurations must be applicable and usable for a broad set of work tasks and users of different sizes and body types.

Courtesy of AmTrust Financial

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