The Relationship between MSDs and the Workplace

The Relationship between MSDs and the Workplace

Recent data suggests that many people’s musculoskeletal issues are exacerbated, or caused, by their job.

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are both common and costly. In fact, MSDs are the single largest category of workplace injuries and are responsible for almost 30 percent of all workers’ compensation costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Workers every day are in pain from strained or aggravated muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs, or blood vessels related to MSDs. The condition has severe human costs that can affect a person for years, or most of their life.

Companies’ economic costs from MSD are high, too. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), US companies spent 50 billion dollars on direct costs of MSDs. According to OSHA, indirect costs can be up to five times the direct costs of MSDs.

What is a musculoskeletal disorder?
MSDs are injuries or disorders that affect the human body’s movement or musculoskeletal system. One article from ErgoPlus lists common disorders from MSDs:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Tendonitis
  • Muscle / Tendon strain
  • Ligament Sprain
  • Tension Neck Syndrome
  • Thoracic Outlet Compression
  • Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
  • Epicondylitis
  • Radial Tunnel Syndrome
  • Digital Neuritis
  • Trigger Finger / Thumb
  • DeQuervain’s Syndrome
  • Mechanical Back Syndrome
  • Degenerative Disc Disease
  • Ruptured / Herniated Disc

MSDs are also sometimes called “repetitive motion injury,” “repetitive stress injury,” or “overuse injury.” Some argue, however, that these terms do not accurately describe MSDs because they imply that there is a singular cause for damage to the musculoskeletal system when there are actually multiple leading risk factors to MSDs.

How are MSDs and work related?
Most people with MSDs will credit their jobs as having a significant factor in their injuries. According to one survey of 2,000 workers by Willis Towers Watson, more than two-thirds of people (68 percent) say that their job caused or exacerbated their MSD.

A lot of this has to do with ergonomics, or the applied science regarding the way humans arrange and use things in their environment (or human engineering). However, MSDs and the workplace also involve employers and the way they address these issues. Sixty-four percent of MSD-sufferers thought their condition was worsened by their occupation, and one third said their employer was aware of their condition but failed to provide adequate support.

The age of MSDs-sufferers might surprise you, too. You might think that people who have been working longer would have more exacerbated musculoskeletal issues. However, according to the survey, workers aged 18-24 were found to be most likely than any other generation to claim that their work had contributed to their MSD (87 percent of workers in this age range).

This is compared with 80 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds and 61 percent of 45-to-54-year-olds and 58 percent of workers over the age of 55. The survey did not elaborate on what might be the causes of these age differences.

Employers really do have a hand in providing musculoskeletal health with everything from standing desks to chairs to keyboards. Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson, said: “Workplaces that promote good musculoskeletal health can play an important role in helping to alleviate the symptoms of MSK (musculoskeletal) conditions and can even help prevent their onset.”

The Labour Force Survey has seen an overall decline in the rate of self-reported, work-related MSK disorders; however, this does not mean that people are not suffering.

According to the survey, the younger generation (aged 18 to 44) held less confidence in their employers’ support than did older workers. Thirty-three percent of younger workers did not consider their employers’ support as sufficient, compared to 32 percent of those aged 45 and older.

The Causes of MSDs
The risk factors associated with MSK conditions are varied. However, if you can educate yourself and your employees on risk factors, you can increase your chances of avoiding a MSD.

There are two categories of risk factors for MSDs: work-related (ergonomic) risk factors and individual-related risk factors. Ergonomic, work-related factors include:

  • force (This is any system requiring high muscle effort.)
  • repetition (This includes tasks and cycles that are repetitive, and maybe on an hourly or daily work process. A job is considered highly repetitive if the cycle time is 30 seconds or more)
  • posture (Awkward postures can overload and strain joints. Make sure your movement are inside the body’s “mid-range.”)

Individual factors include poor work practices, poor fitness, and poor health habits. A prolonged combination of these factors can cause MSD.

Fatigue and recovery are two other big factors to the equation. As a person’s body works and grows fatigued, the muscles and skeleton are at increased risk for injury and pain. That person’s recovery system then needs to keep up with the fatigue from performing the job. If fatigue and recovery are out of balance, the risk of MSK conditions is heightened.

Diagnosis of MSDs
While early diagnosis and treatment are important for MSDs, this is easier said than done since many MSK conditions develop over time with work-related causes like manual handling, lifting, and repetitive actions like keyboard work.

“Risk assessment can have a big preventative role to play here, helping identify potential problem areas and enabling employers to make practical workplace adjustments–from providing new equipment or improving office ergonomics to encouraging employees to move and stretch regularly,” said Blake.

Companies and employers count do a number of routine ergonomic assessments for employees. They can encourage stretch breaks, and they can educate workers on harmful habits.

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