What Are Workplace Musculoskeletal Disorders?


Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are common and account for the single largest category of workplace injuries, making up nearly 30 percent of all Workers’ Compensation costs each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

A MSD is a long-term injury that develops over time, and it can be debilitating for a worker if it is not properly treated. These disorders can impact businesses broadly with higher health care costs, productivity, and Workers’ Compensation costs.

The BLS reports that MSDs account for 27 percent per 10,000 full-time employees, averaging 12 days of missed work per worker. The health care and social assistance fields, manufacturing, and retail trades experience the most MSDs, accounting for 50 percent of all cases in 2018.

MSDs affect movement and muscles, nerves, blood vessels, tendons, discs, and ligaments. Such injuries include:

  • Muscle strains, sprains, tears, and lower back injuries.
  • Carpel tunnel syndrome.
  • Tendonitis.
  • Rotator cuff injuries.
  • Trigger finger.
  • Tennis elbow.

Workplace design is the largest contributor to MSDs. Workers required to perform tasks outside the capabilities and limitations of their bodies increases the risk for injuries to their musculoskeletal system. Studying and evaluating the design an individual’s workstation may show that their body’s recovery system may not be able to keep up with the resulting fatigue of completing their tasks. This kind of incidence greatly increases the risk of a MSD and necessitates a change to the employee’s work environment.

How Are MSDs Caused?

According to the BLS, MSDs frequently result from activities that workers perform repetitively or from overexertion and fall into two risk categories: work-related factors and individual-related factors. 

Work-related risk factors include:

  • High task repetition: Many work activities and cycles are repetitive, particularly in the manufacturing and production field, and controlled by hourly or daily production targets. Cycle times of 30 seconds or less is considered highly repetitive. High repetition rates combined with other risk factors, such as awkward positioning and high force, can contribute greatly to MSDs.
  • Forceful exertions: Tasks requiring high force on the body require increased muscle effort and result in increased fatigue. Workers spending long periods of time performing tasks under these conditions are at greater risk for developing MSDs.
  • Awkward postures: Repetitive and sustained awkward postures puts excessive force on the body’s joints, overloading the muscles and tendons around joints. The human body’s joint system is most efficient operating closest to the joint’s mid-range of motion. When tasked repetitively for sustained periods without adequate recovery time, the joints are more susceptible to injury.

Individual-related risk factors include:

  • Poor work practices: Workers who ignore recommended safety methods and use poor work practices, body mechanics, and lifting techniques create additional stress on their body’s muscles and joints that increases fatigue and reduces their ability to recover.
  • Health habits: Poor heath habits such as smoking, obesity, drinking excessively, and other bad habits put the person at greater risk for a MSD, along with other chronic diseases.
  • Poor rest and recovery: When fatigue is greater than a worker’s recovery system, musculoskeletal imbalance is created. Workers who do not actively provide their systems with adequate rest and recovery time put themselves at higher risk.
  • Nutrition, hydration, and fitness: A significant portion of the population is actively malnourished, dehydrated, and not physically fit, making strenuous physical work increasingly more difficult. Workers with poor overall health and fitness are at a much higher risk for injury and chronic health issues.

Are MSDs Preventable?

Early diagnosis of a MSD is key. However, MSDs develop over time, so this is difficult. Workplace ergonomics programs are the most effective method to reducing the number of MSDs. 

The ergonomics process studies how people work in their daily environment, such as studying how employees who spend the majority of their shift sitting at a desk develop back injuries. Ergonomic programs in the workplace help minimize stress and injuries related with repetitive tasks, overuse of muscles, and poor posture. Important elements of an ergonomics program in the workplace include:

  • Management support: Commitment to an ergonomic process by management is essential to success with clearly defined goals, discussions with workers, responsibilities of certain staff members, and clear communication with the entire company.
  • Worker participation: Employees directly involved in assessing the workplace and creating and implementing the solutions. Workers can identify and provide information on hazards, suggestions to reduce exposure, and evaluate changes to protocol in the workplace following the process.
  • Training: Providing a training program is a key component of any ergonomic process to ensure employees are educated about ergonomics and the benefits, informed of ergonomic concerns, and the importance of reporting symptoms early. Earlier reporting can help prevent or reduce injury progression.
  • Evaluation: Corrective action procedures and evaluation are essential to assess the ergonomic process’s effectiveness, continue improvements, and long-term success.

What Are Examples of Ergonomic Changes in the Workplace?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies control areas companies should focus on to reduce ergonomic risks, which include:

  • Engineering controls: Worksite designs based on individual employee’s capabilities and limitations, such as redesigning the layout of a workstation with adjustable workbenches, closer placement of tools, or developing alternative ways materials and products are transported.
  • Administrative controls: The CDC recommends implementing temporary administrative measures until engineering controls are in place. Such examples of administrative controls could include shorter shifts, providing more breaks, rotating workers to different stations, and training.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): Providing PPE devices, such as back belts, braces, wrist splints, and similar equipment can reduce MSD risks by reducing the frequency, intensity, and duration of work tasks.

Wilmington Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Rhoades & Morrow Represent Clients With Work-Related MSDs

MSDs sustained in workplace activities can be painful, impact your ability to work, and cause lifelong conditions. If you sustained a musculoskeletal injury on the job, our Wilmington Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Rhoades & Morrow can protect your rights. Call us today at (302) 427-9500 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation. Located in Wilmington, Bear, and Milford, Delaware, we serve clients throughout Middletown, Dover, Milford, Lewes, Rehoboth, Elsmere, and Seaford.


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