Work-related Musculo-skeletal Disorders


Our ability to work—in any way—is completely dependent on our physical health. When we feel unease, discomfort, pain or numbness, we may be able to ignore the body’s warning signals and still perform work, but the body will perform slower; with less power, quality and precision; with more errors; and at worst, resulting in serious accidents.

A very real problem that is faced by all production industry is when the limit has been passed for what a human body can tolerate, resulting in a worker needing to go on sick leave, i.e. be absent from work to recover from physical disability. If the disability affects the worker’s physical ability to move and handle loading, then the worker is said to be suffering from a work-related musculo-skeletal disorder (abbreviated either as WMSD or just MSD).

MSDs are defined as a heterogeneous group of disorders caused by a multitude of potential (physical) factors. Pain, discomfort and fatigue are considered common first symptoms, while more obvious signs of the presence of an MSD include loss of function, limited movement range and loss of muscle power.

The costs of a worker taking sick leave can balloon to huge proportions: not only does the employer in many cases need to cover the worker’s sick leave compensation and rehabilitation costs, but there are also the costs of recruitment, training of new personnel and losses of productivity and quality until a new employee has reached the previous worker’s level of skill, competence and speed. All in all, losing valuable, experienced staff due to an unnecessary physical diability is a terrible waste that can be avoided in two steps:

  1. Evaluating ergonomic risks
  2. Designing workplaces that lessen the strain on the human body
Table 2.1.  |   Individual biological and lifestyle-related factors that influence the risk of MSDs.
Biological factorsLifestyle factors
  • Muscular strength
  • Skeletal strength and bone mineral content
  • Age, sex, biological measures
  • Impaired vision, hearing, senses
  • Pain experience, neuromuscular reactions
  • Prior load history, diseases and injuries
  • Health, training and fitness habits
  • Social environments (active or sedentary)
  • Pleasure, comfort and well-being
  • Chosen working postures
  • Smoking, alcohol, diet or drugs

Some potential causes of musculo-skeletal injuries are related to biological and lifestyle characteristics of individuals, and are therefore difficult to anticipate or do anything about using design. Biological and lifestyle-related factors influencing MSDs are shown in Table 2.1.

However, work-related MSD causes are possible for an engineer to avoid and are therefore the most interesting ones to identify quickly. Engineers with knowledge of ergonomics should design work and workplaces to minimize the adverse risks of the following:

  • forced working postures
  • load weight
  • static work
  • continuous loading of tissue structures
  • repetitive working tasks
  • time pressure/lack of recovery time
  • working technique
  • working attitude
  • demotivation, stress
  • organization

How Big Is the Problem?

MSDs are the work-related health problem with the highest impact on sickness absenteeism in Europe; they are the cause of half of all absences from work and cost the EU €240 billion each year in productivity losses (Fit for Work Europe 2013). MSDs are also the work-related health problem with the highest impact on permanent incapacity; 61% of permanent incapacity is due to MSDs (OSHA 2007). Forty-four million workers across the EU have an MSD caused by their work, 30% of those with MSDs also have depressionOpens in new window, making it even more difficult for them to stay in or return to work (Bevan 2013).

Figure 2.1: Lower-back pain has been the most common cause of MSD-related sickness.

Typically the back tends to be the most commonly affected area of the body (Figure 2.1); 80% of all adults have back pain some time in their working life and 30% of sick leave cases in Sweden are due to back pain (many young people) (Palmer, 2000). Blue-collar workers are at the highest risk for contracting an MSD, with almost 20 times as many employees experiencing an MSD compared to white-collar employees. Of these workers, those involved in manual labour such as trade workers, plant and machine operators and assemblers, are at the highest risk (OSHA 2007).

  • Share
  • References
    • Bevan, S. (2013). Reducing Temporary Work Absence Through Early Intervention: The case of MSDs in the EU.
    • Kroemer, K.H. E. & Grandjean, E. (1997) Fitting the Task to the Human: A Textbook of Occupational Ergonomics. London; Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis.
    • Kuorinka & Forcier (Eds.). (1995). Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs): A Reference Book for Prevention. London: Taylor and Francis.
    • OSHA. (2007). MSDs. [Online].
    • Palmer, K. T., Walsh, K., et al. (2000). Back pain in Britain: comparison of two prevalence surveys at an interval of 10 years. BMJ, 330: 1577 – 1578.
    • Tortora, G. J. & Grabowski, S. R. (2004). Introduction to the Human Body: The Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology, 6th edition. Hoboken, NJ:J. Wiley & Sons.

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