Simple Ergonomics: WMSDs

The risk factors for developing a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (WMSD) involve typical body movements used over the course of the workday. They include repetitive motions of body parts or regions of the body; forceful exertions, such as pulling, pushing, lifting or gripping; static postures or holding a body position with no movement; compression of soft tissue from tools or hard objects pressing against the palm; awkward body positions; and vibrations.

Analyzing the relationship between the existence of these factors and the occurrence of WMSDs or their symptoms will help determine the need for preventative measures to minimize the occurrence of these injuries. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests using a three-step approach when conducting this type of analysis. A logical place to start is by reviewing your employees’ injuries and illnesses. This analysis can determine if there is a pattern of WMSD-type injuries associated with certain jobs or work tasks.

Step 1

Examine your company’s various injury and illness reports. Depending on your location and applicable requirements, the records you keep may differ, but you may want to look at the following:

• OSHA 200 forms for the years 
before 2002

• OSHA 300 logs for the years 
after 2002

• Workers’ compensation claims

• Group health insurance records

• First-aid logs

• Absentee and turnover records

• Records of employee grievances 
and complaints

Gleaning any mention of a WMSD from these records can help pinpoint the potentially hazardous jobs or tasks.

Step 2

Identify potential WMSD cases. Using the above-mentioned resources, you will find any entry that may point to the presence of WMSDs. The tricky bit is that WMSD is an umbrella term that includes many different injuries and illnesses that affect the various parts of the body’s musculoskeletal system. There isn’t a single diagnosis for WMSDs, so look for different conditions. Some of the commonly identified injuries and illnesses that fall into the WMSD category include the following:

• Tendinitis

• Tenosynovitis

• Epiconylitis

• Bursitis

• De Quervain’s disease

• Ganglion cyst

• Thoracic outlet syndrome

• Sprains, strains, tears or pain

Step 3

Categorize WMSDs. After the records have been reviewed, categorize appropriate cases by job, department, division, task and shift to determine if any patterns or trends exist. Look for things such as the following:

• One unit (such as a job, department or division) has a higher number of WMSDs than other comparable units in your company.

• One unit’s rate of injury has increased each year over several years.

• A unit in your company has a higher rate than other companies doing the same job.

• The rate of WMSDs increases during a particular product production or while performing a certain work task.

This process should give you a good idea of whether there is a relationship between at-risk behaviors and the injuries occurring at your company.

OSHA suggested another approach that involves analyzing the jobs or tasks that are performed without consideration for the history of injuries at your workplace. By analyzing the individual jobs or tasks alone, you can identify potential ergonomic problems prior to an employee being injured.

Typically, jobs and tasks that present multiple risk factors and the lack of sufficient recovery time—such as rest breaks or days off—are more likely to lead to WMSDs. When looking at jobs your employees perform, pay special attention to those conditions. For example, pulling wire requires a strong pulling force and the employee to twist or position his or her body in an awkward posture. If this task is done repetitively over the entire workday, day after day, the potential for injury increases. Injuries may not have occurred up to a given point because projects or work assignments haven’t exposed the employee at sufficient levels. A large project or series of similar projects may change that and place the employee at risk.

Whether you use the risk-versus-injury analysis or look for risk factors alone, it can be helpful and informative to seek employees’ input. If it causes stress or strain on the body, who would know better than those performing the tasks? Simply asking that question may not provide the data you need. Use questionnaires designed to assess ergonomic risk factors. Combining employee input with other resources, such as information from others in your industry, can better qualify the risks. If other companies in your industry are experiencing ergonomic-related WMSDs, it is logical that these issues are potential problems for your company as well.

About the Author

Diane Kelly

Safety Columnist

Diane Kelly is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 or dkell...

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