If an aging workforce has you concerned that work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) might be on the rise, relax. According to a new study by the Robens Centre at the University of Surrey, age has nothing to do with work-related MSDs. Nor does gender, neuroticism or even a negative mood. What does play a role in the development of work-related MSDs, says lead researcher Dr. Jason Devereux, are physical factors in the workplace as well as worker stress.
Devereux followed over 3000 workers, asking questions about their physical and psychosocial work factors, demographics, individual traits, stress reactions and musculoskeletal complaints over the course of 15 months, and found that workers who reported that they were highly exposed to both physical and psychosocial work risk factors were also the ones who reported the most low-back, upper back, neck, shoulder, elbows/forearm and hand/wrist musculoskeletal complaints. After 15 months, the follow-up study found that high exposure to both physical and psychosocial risk factors also increased the chances that a worker would report new episodes of low-back, neck, shoulder, elbow/forearm and hand-wrist complaints, although not upper back complaints.
Additionally, Devereux noticed a relationship between the type of musculoskeletal complaint and the type of psychosocial stress the worker was reporting. For example, depression increased the likelihood of reporting pain in the upper back, neck and elbows and forearms. Life stress increased the chances a worker would report shoulder complaints. What Devereux and colleagues didn’t find was any relationship between demographics like age or gender and the probability that a worker would report a musculoskeletal complaint.
Devereux notes, in a conversation with The Ergonomics ReportTM, that “age, gender and neuroticism are not predictors of work-related stress according to the study findings,” although he does concede that workers who aren’t considered “mentally tough or resilient” may let past, present and future events bother them and become more at risk of developing work-related stress. But, he cautions, “this is not as strong a risk factor compared to psychosocial work risk factors like time pressure, interruptions, role conflict, and verbal abuse.”
In addition to increasing the risk for developing a work-related MSD, stress has also been linked to higher turnover rates, increased absenteeism, elevated medical expenses and lower productivity in the workplace, all at an estimated cost of over $300 billion annually in the United States. So can ergonomics help? The experts, including Devereux, believe so. Find out what they have to say, what studies show, and how ergonomics fits into the big picture in Where Does Ergonomics Fit Into Stress Reduction?, in The Ergonomics ReportTM, available for subscribers on-line at www.ergonomicsreport.com.
Sources: The Ergonomics ReportTM; The New York Times