July 16, 2022

Musculoskeletal Disorders at Work

Employers must safeguard employees against the risks of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused or exacerbated by their jobs. MSDs are a group of ailments and illnesses that affect the back, joints, and limbs. If these risks exist, the employer must also consider specific risk assessments on manual handling, vibration, and working with display screen equipment in addition to the generic risk assessment.

The primary functions of the musculoskeletal system include support of the body, provision of motion, and protection of vital organs. The muscular and skeletal systems work together to support and move the body. The skeletal system includes the bones of the skeleton and the cartilage, ligaments, and other connective tissue that stabilize or connect the bones. In addition to supporting the weight of the body, bones work together with the muscular system to maintain body position and produce controlled precise movements. Without the skeleton to pull against, contracting muscle fibers could not make us sit, stand, walk or run.

The average human body has 206 bones, with sizes ranging from the tiniest bone, which is the stapes in the middle ear, to the femur, the long bone in the thigh. Besides the skeletal system’s function of providing support to the body and protecting organs, it also provides several other important functions.

Employers face substantial expenditures due to absenteeism, lost productivity, and higher health care, disability, and worker’s compensation costs due to musculoskeletal problems. The severity of MSD instances is higher than the normal nonfatal injury or illness. The cost of MSDs for employers is huge. $1 in every $6 spent on healthcare by employers is due to musculoskeletal pain making it one of the most expensive healthcare issues. MSD issues can result in an average of 10 plus days missed per employee. Painkillers and surgery are costly and may limit an employee’s quality of life.

Our bodies were designed for movement, and the more physical activity we can be managed in, the healthier we will be. And physical activity does not always have to be planned exercise. The biggest challenge is finding ways to create more movement throughout the work day. One simple strategy is to take frequent standing breaks from your desk. There are a number of apps available that will remind you to stand up and do some stretches or exercises when at your desk. Even if you are not currently experiencing any signs or symptoms of MSDs, there are a number of preventative strategies you can take to ensure that these symptoms do not develop.

Many people recognize that they could have better posture, or they remember their parents nagging them about slouching and sitting up straight. Not everybody with bad posture will have pain right now as the body is highly resilient and adaptable. However, over time, sustained poor postures increase strain on the body and therefore increase the risk of MSDs. One way we can protect ourselves from the effects of bad posture is to always try to maintain a neutral spine posture. The neutral spine is the natural resting position of the spine where the discs, joints, muscles, and ligaments experience the least amount of stress and act as a spring to help support our body against gravity. To find a neutral spine in a seated position, place your hands on top of your hips, and roll your hips gently forward and backward as far as you can go.

The middle position you feel between these two extremes is your neutral hip position. Your torso should sit on top of neutral hips to maintain the natural three curves of your spine. Your head should be directly on top of your shoulders, and your shoulders should feel relaxed and centered over your hips, and your low back should be supported with a gentle curve maintained.

While your spine and body should be free to move in any direction, the neutral spine is the best position to be in if you have to maintain one posture for prolonged periods of time. You should always consult a health care practitioner if you are unsure if a stretch or exercise will be safe and effective for you. When it comes to the prevention of MSDs, there is no magic formula, and the key is to move more. If you are currently experiencing any of the signs and symptoms associated with MSDs, seek the care of a qualified health practitioner such as a chiropractor or physiotherapist to aid your recovery and customize a prevention plan to meet your individual needs. This would include strategies for exercise, hydration as well as nutrition.

So, what causes MSDs? The risk factors include,

  • how the tasks being carried out – lifting heavy or bulky loads; carrying out a task for a long time; repetitive work, particularly using the same hand or arm action
  • environment where the tasks are undertaken – inadequate lighting; cold temperatures
  • organization – work pressure; unrealistic job demands
  • the worker themselves – an existing injury that may make them more vulnerable; working when physically tired.

Hazardous manual tasks like lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying is common in every workplace. The most frequently injured parts of the body from these kinds of tasks are the back, shoulders and wrists. These injuries are known as MSDs. Most arrive from repetitive sustained or awkward movements as well as high or sudden force. By managing these hazards through consideration of posture, movement, and the environment, we can create a safer workplace. To do this, the simplest approach is to step back and be aware of every aspect of the task at hand every time. If injuries continue to occur, more rigorous action may need to be taken.

Sometimes a hazard can be removed by simply performing the manual task differently, such as by pushing, not pulling, or sliding rather than lifting. Almost 50 percent of workplace injuries occur because of hazardous manual tasks. Soft tissue injuries like sprains and strains along with nerve compression and muscular and vascular disorders are common. Some workplaces will require specialized actions or movements to achieve a particular job task. Sometimes to get the best outcome for awkward or sustained posture is to innovate the solution.

Some tips to minimize your exposure to ergonomic risk factors at work.

  • Incorporate microbreaks and stretching into your workday to minimize built-up muscle tension. This could be something as simple as a 30 to 60-second stretch or step away from your workstation every 20 minutes.
  • Being mindful of your body position and the amount of force you exert while performing a task. If you feel unable to perform a task independently, ask a coworker for assistance.
  • Alternate job tasks throughout your workday to minimize prolonged repetitive body motion as much as possible.

With the implementation of a hierarchy of control, the engineering controls are preferred to prevent and control MSDs job design in considering the capabilities and limitations of the workforce. E.g., Automation and or use of mechanical equipment for heavy load lifting and carrying tasks or using handles or slotted hand holes in packages requiring manual handling; changing workstation layout by using height-adjustable workbenches and avoid reaching to access different parts of the plant.

Formulating policies and practices that reduce MSDs risk. It includes limiting the amount of overtime or shortening shifts; Changes in procedures, such as arranging extra breaks to allow for rest and recovery, Workers to be job rotated for physically demanding jobs, and training in recognizing MSD risk factors, as well as guidance on work practices and procedures that might reduce task demands and load.

Article written by:

Mr. Dilip Madurai , MET, CSP, IDip NEBOSH HSE Lead Tutor, Green World Group – Dubai

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