July 25th, 2001

Ergoweb’s Answer to ‘What is an Ergonomics Injury’

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U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao has asked the public for input on 3 questions to assist OSHA in determining a direction as they struggle to deal with the issue of occupational musculoskeletal disorders. This article forms the basis of Ergoweb Inc.’s official response, and will be submitted to OSHA for the record.

Secretary Chao’s first question is:

What is an ergonomics injury? The Department of Labor is interested in establishing an accepted definition that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers and their employees can understand and apply.

This question demonstrates a fundamental misconception about ergonomics.

There is no such thing as an “ergonomics injury.”

Ergonomics is an applied, design-oriented science that, among many other things, can assist companies in reducing the occurrence of what OSHA has termed “musculoskeletal disorders” (MSDs). Applying ergonomics principles is a method through which MSDs, and their direct and indirect costs, can be controlled. Ergonomics is also applied to increase productivity and efficiency, reduce errors, improve quality, reduce waste, increase employee retention and satisfaction, and ultimately improve work, products, and a company’s bottom-line.

So, rephrasing the question for accuracy, Ergoweb respectfully suggests “What is an ergonomics injury?” be rephrased as “What is an MSD?”

MSDs are injuries and disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. MSDs can be directly and indirectly related to aspects of the work or the work environment known as risk factors. Non-work activities and environments that expose people to these risk factors can also cause or contribute to MSDs. When an MSD is associated with work it is usually referred to as a Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorder (WRMSD or WMSD). Other terms, such as cumulative trauma disorder (CTD), repetitive stress injury (RSI), and repetitive motion injury (RMI), mean roughly the same thing as MSD. However, RSI and RMI are arguably inaccurate, because these terms imply that repetition is the primary risk factor, which may or may not be the case.

MSD risk factors can be defined as actions in (or out of) the workplace, workplace (or non-workplace) conditions, or a combination thereof that may cause or aggravate an MSD. Examples include forceful exertions, awkward postures, repetitive exertions, and exposure to environmental factors like extreme heat, cold, humidity or vibration. It is often a combination of these risk factors that, over time, can lead to pain, injury, and disability. These risk factors can be reduced through informed purchasing and workplace design, retrofit engineering controls, administrative controls, work practice definitions, or in some cases, personal protective equipment.

The manner in which a risk factor leads to an injury/disorder is usually through the accumulation of exposure to the risk factors. An event such as lifting, pushing, or pulling may stress body tissues, yet the exposure may be too low for traumatic injury, and the tissues recover. Repeated exposure to this stress, on the other hand, may interfere with the normal recovery process and produce disproportionate responses and eventually an MSD type injury.

Traumatic injuries, such as an overexertion injury, may occur due to cumulative effects that manifest themselves suddenly at the time of a specific event, or they may occur because the event exposes the body to risk factors that exceed the person’s individual capabilities. A sudden back or shoulder injury tied to a specific task is an example.

Ergoweb asks that OSHA refrain from using the word ergonomics in the title of any standard or guideline dealing with occupational MSDs. A more appropriate title might be “Occupational Musculoskeletal Disorder Prevention Standard,” or “Occupational Musculoskeletal Disorder Reduction Standard.”

Qualified ergonomists, applying ergonomics principles to the design of work, equipment and processes, is a method through which risk factors that contribute to MSDs can be effectively eliminated or reduced.

Ergonomics is not the problem; it is the solution.



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