It’s one of the first things that Ergoweb teaches at our Applied Workplace Training seminars: learn to recognize risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). These risk factors are actions in the workplace, workplace conditions, or a combination thereof, which may cause or aggravate an MSD. Examples include forceful exertions, awkward postures, repetitive motions, vibration, duration of exposure, and environmental factors such as temperature.
We know that these risk factors can result in pain, discomfort, illness and injury. We know that such disorders can result in significant direct and indirect costs to companies. We know that they can cause a lifetime of pain for those who suffer from them. We also know that injured, pained, and even uncomfortable workers are not likely to perform at their best.
Unfortunately, many companies never know the full cost of neglecting occupational ergonomics until well after the fact, when injuries show up as a significant, measurable loss to the company, and to the injured employees. And these costs don’t include the productivity, quality, waste and process error losses that inevitably occur when poor ergonomics is accepted. These financial losses are often far greater than the health and safety costs.
Recognizing and controlling MSD risk factors is a key component to workplace ergonomics. There is plenty of healthy debate about what levels of exposure to the different risk factors workers can withstand, and researchers have yet to establish widely accepted “dose-response” relationships between known risk factors and injuries. However, at least one new study documents that MSD risk factors are costing companies money even before injuries occur.
In a study published in the May 2002 issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Dutch researchers found that risk factors like flexion and rotation of the trunk, lifting, and low job satisfaction are risk factors for sickness absence due to low back pain. In most cases, pain and discomfort are not described as injuries and are therefore not recorded in injury data logs.
In another study published in the May 2002 American Journal of Industrial Medicine, researchers found that neck and shoulder pain and stiffness, and medical disorders linked to these symptoms, are more widespread among computer users than previous studies suggest. Again, neck and shoulder pain usually isn’t recorded as an injury, but you can be sure that an employee in pain is not performing at his or her optimum.
If your organization bases its need for ergonomics solely on injury data, it may miss opportunities to improve work and process design that will head off costly injuries and illnesses before they occur, but also improve process and worker performance, reduce costly absenteeism, turnover, and other wastful inefficiencies.
Identify, prioritize, and control MSD risk factors in your workplace. It’s well worth the effort.