We all know that getting to the root cause of the problem is the best way to solve our ergonomic challenges. Otherwise we are merely treating the symptoms and that is not a value-add for either you or your client’s time. Adding complexity to the issue, musculoskeletal injuries have been associated with various psychosocial work factors including work organization, mental stress (to name a few), physical demands, and individual factors. And, we all know by now that poor ergonomic set-ups have notoriously been linked to reduced productivity, days lost from work, and increased workers’ compensation claims.
Let’s take a moment to backtrack on what exactly musculoskeletal injuries are. Musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) are an umbrella term used to describe a collection of injuries that can affect a person’s muscles, nerves and tendons. The most frequent MSIs that occur in the office are observed in the neck, shoulders, elbows, forearm, wrists, hands, and lower back (we’re going to break it down even more for you in this post). Countries, and even jurisdictions within countries, tend to have slightly different naming schemes. As an umbrella term, MSIs can be used to describe any of the following identifications listed below:
- Overuse syndrome
- Sprain and strain
- Overexertion injury
- Cumulative trauma disorders (CTD)
- Repetitive strain injuries (RSI)
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD)
- Work-related musculoskeletal disorder (WMSD)
- Occupational overuse syndrome (OOS)
- Repetitive motion injuries (RMI)
- Work related upper limb disorder (WRULD)
Daily work exposures to normal (or abnormal) levels of workload and risk factors can lead to a worker feeling sore and fatigued at the end of the workday or workweek. The most common physical risks present in the office environment are repetitive actions, forceful exertions, and awkward postures. Interestingly, this study surveyed staff and found the following frequencies of pain or discomfort related to their workstations:
- Neck/Shoulders (37%)
- Back Area (34%)
- Upper Extremities (22%)
- Lower Extremities (18%)
Note: The findings below are based off a survey of 2,300+ clerical workers. With the size of the sample, I would wager that these proportions would be somewhat generalizable to your organization. In my experience, these values reflect what I have seen over very many ergonomic assessments – the majority of complaints are usually in the neck/shoulders or the back areas.
This study also deconstructed ergonomic risks in the workstations and correlated them with existing MSIs. This is where the big value is in this research! There was an elevated risk of MSIs that was associated with the following 5 factors.
- The person’s workstation having less ergonomic adjustability. There are a variety of ways that a workstation could be less adjustable:
- Task chair with no height adjustability
- Monitor without any tilt or height adjustability
- Keyboard and mouse on top of the work surface (alluding to the fact that there is no keyboard tray for height adjustability)
- The actual keyboard/mouse
- Or, of course a combination of all of these factors!
- A work schedule that pre-disposes the person to less opportunities of getting out of their task chair during their busy day. An example of this is that some jobs may have really tight deadlines that must be adhered to (usually no matter what… does this sound familiar to anyone?). Computer/sedentary activity has been historically linked to many negative and chronic degenerative health outcomes.
- The person’s sex.
- There are significant differences between the sexes. Women have a higher risk of a MSI for all regions of the body except for the lower extremities.
- The person’s age.
- As the person ages, there is an association with an increased risk for all body regions, except for the back.
- The person’s BMI.
- There is an increased risk of MSI development for both underweight and obese workers.
Note: Since this study is based off a relatively large survey of 2,300+ clerical workers, I think it would be reasonable to suggest that these 5 factors may also be representative of your organization. And, using these factors as a framework may also help you identify populations within your organization with a greater risk of developing a MSI. At the same time, most sound ergonomic process would have processes set in place already to capture this data.
There is immense value in identifying these 5 factors above in your organization as a proactive or preventative approach. These risks were found to be more highly correlated with MSIs. Some of them are blatantly obvious (re: workstation adjustability and work pace) and may be where you are already focussing your attention, but for some of the other factors (sex, age, and BMI) shifting some of your approach/attention may prove to be a big value-add with the changing demographics of our workforce in the upcoming years. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
In whatever strategy you implement to reduce the risk, the factors that will have a big value will be:
- Incorporating adjustability into the workstation to match your demographics (aging, sex, BMI)
- More adjustability in workstations will always be better.
- Staff ergonomics training to ensure that staff are working safely, using pacing strategies to their favour, etc.
- A more practical approach – showing staff how to actually make adjustments to their workstations, will be a valuable training tactic.
Delp, L & Wang, P. (2013). Musculoskeletal Disorders Among Clerical Workers in Los Angeles: A Labor Management Approach. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 56, 1072-1081.