The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) recently launched a web site tool for characterizing occupational injury and illness incidents. Nowhere does the agency mention one of its most documented concerns – work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The omission is not a case of NIOSH oversight. It’s a comment on the taxing nature of MSDs.
The term covers a host of neck, upper extremity and low back disorders. In 2006, NIOSH described work-related MSDs as one of the most prevalent and costly safety and health problems in the modern workplace.
The new NIOSH tool, “The Occupational Injury and Illness Classification System (OIICS),” which was developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, standardizes the coding system for characterizing work-related injuries and illnesses. The combination of an online information “tree” with four categories and downloadable software at wwwn.cdc.gov/oiics/ is designed for policy makers, researchers, employers and others.
Lengthy explanations and coding rules preface each of the four categories:
• “Nature of the Injury or Illness” identifies and ranks the principal physical characteristics of the injury or illness, with traumatic injuries and disorders at the top. Diseases, such as neoplasms and cancers, are near the bottom.
• “Part of Body” codes and ranks the parts of the body affected by the injury or illness. The head tops the list.
• “Source of Injury or Illness” is the longest list. It gives chemicals and chemical products top place, with containers in second place.
• "Event or Exposure" applies to injuries produced by contact between the injured person and the source of injury.
Asked by Ergonomics Today® to comment on the new NIOSH tool, Peter Budnick, Ph.D., CPE, the principal of Ergoweb Inc., described the OIICS as “a great piece of technology” that lacks in substance. “To be fair, this isn’t a problem with the tool itself – they made a nifty tool – but a problem with the recognition and record-keeping related to MSDs," said Dr. Budnick, explaining that omission of what is widely regarded as a scourge of the modern workplace.
Indeed, another federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has been grappling for years with how and where to include MSDs in workplace record-keeping tools.
A Federal Register item of June 30, 2003 explains the basis of the challenge: “A number of participants in the ergonomics forums had argued that the [proposed record-keeping] definition of MSD combines too many disparate types of disorders to be useful. They pointed out that there are at least two distinct categories of disorders covered by the definition; disorders caused by a single event, such as a heavy lift, and disorders caused by repetitive or cumulative events, such as repetitive lifting, typing or assembly line work. To produce more relevant statistics, these participants suggested, OSHA should narrow the definition to focus on a group of disorders having common characteristics.” Neither OSHA nor its Ergonomics Task Force has arrived at a more specific definition of an MSD.
Then-OSHA Administrator John Henshaw noted that the lack of MSD-specific reporting “does not change the current way injuries or illnesses are recorded and does not affect an employer’s obligation to record work-related injuries, including [MSDs].” Rather, Henshaw noted that employers will still need to lump MSDs in with the “injury” or “all other illness” categories.
Sources: NIOSH; OSHA