Expert views on the relationship between gender and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace are as diverse as the studies that spawn them. The differences of opinion reflect the complexity of the subject, and offer a way to walk around the issue to look at it from several sides.
In 2003 the World Health Organization (WHO) described MSDs as one of the leading causes of morbidity, disability and economic pain around the world. WHO also explained that the inflammatory and degenerative conditions and diseases affecting the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, peripheral nerves and supporting blood vessels impinge on the person’s functional capacity, work performance and productivity. Building upwards and outwards from these basic observations is challenging. Almost everything to do with gender, work-related physical/psychosocial risk factors and MSDs, for instance, has controversy attached. The question of which sex is the most susceptible to risk factors in
the workplace could rank as the most debatable aspect.
The conclusions of the authors of two 2004 papers can be regarded as an overview of the debate as they distill the findings from a large number of investigations into gender prevalence.
Women Are More Susceptible
Scientists at Ohio State University (OSU) concluded in the first of these two studies that women are at least twice as likely as men to develop some
musculoskeletal disorders of the upper body. Delia Treaster, Ph.D., then a doctoral student, and Deborah Burr, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology
and biometrics, performed a statistical analysis of 56 previous studies to remove factors that could have skewed the results. The findings were described
in an OSU news release in July that year and widely reported in the news media.
The authors see the study as a “critical baseline for comparing gender differences in the prevalence of disorders of the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.”
They noted that some researchers suspect that women have a higher incidence of these disorders only because they are more likely than men to admit to pain and seek treatment. Others believe the gender difference is due to a greater exposure to certain risk factors for women. But when the OSU study accounted for factors such as age, occupation, and whether the workers reported the disorder
themselves or were clinically diagnosed, the gender difference remained. Dr. Teaster said she was surprised at the result.
“Any way you slice the data, women have a significantly higher prevalence
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2007-02-21.