Are You at Risk for a Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorder?

If you've injured your neck or back on the job, you've likely experienced a musculoskeletal disorder (MSK). A work-related MSK is defined as a problem that occurs at work—even if it takes a while to develop—that affects your nerves, muscles, and/or tendons.

Computer worker wearing a neck brace
Andreas Schlege / Getty Images

MSDs are one of the biggest contributors to lost employee work time. According to OSHA, which is the Occupational Safety and Health Agency of the U.S. federal government, just over one-third of workplace injuries that took place in 2015 were MSDs.

A musculoskeletal injury sustained at work can cost an employer upwards of $30,000.

In 2015, a median of 8 days were lost per employee for all types of non-fatal injuries, which included, but were not limited to, MSDs. That said, the number of days off from work due to an injury varies widely according to industry.

Types of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Injuries

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), another federal agency concerned with public health, says employees' environments are largely responsible for increased MSDs risk, as well as for the worsening of existing conditions.

Examples of injuries that may be perpetuated by poor ergonomics include muscle strains, ligament sprains, carpal tunnel syndrome, and more.

Below is a more comprehensive list.


MSD Risk Factor Exposures

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) goes a step further by distinguishing an MSD as a bodily reaction and not the result of a slip, fall or trip.

What do they mean by this? Isn't a fall a reaction? 

Not quite. In this case, a bodily reaction is a movement your body does in the process of fulfilling your job description. The BLS counts bending, climbing, crawling, reaching and twisting as bodily reactions.  

Along with bodily reactions, the BLS says overexertion and repetitive motion may up your MSD risk. Believe it or not, overexertion and repetitive motion can be part of a sedentary job. Think of what happens when you type on the computer all day: Your fingers are moving constantly, while the muscles that control your wrists are working hard to support that joint.

When this occurs, you're said in ergonomic terms, to be "exposed" to risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders. The same is true if your job requires that you lift heavy items, bend, reach, push or pull heavy loads and the like.

Exposures are also called "hazards."

Another possible MSD risk factor exposure is the assumption of non-neutral or "awkward" body postures. If your monitor is placed a bit off to one side, for example, this may mean your neck stays in a twisted position for the entire day. For many people, sustained or awkward posture leads to pain, too.

And heavy physical work, obesity, smoking—having a complicated health profile, and/or stressful work demands may add to the risk.

The official list of exposure to injury risk at work, as per OSHA, is as follows:

  • Excessive force, which relates to lifting heavy objects, pulling and pushing, and similar bodily reactions.
  • Excessive force on joints that don't move much, such as computer use.
  • Repetition, which is the case in certain kinds of factory work, and with typing
  • Awkward positioning, which may occur as a result of poor workstation setup
  • Cold
  • Vibration—think jackhammer operator
  • A combination of any of the above

What Should You Do If You Get an MSD at Work?

The good news is that work-related MSDs can be prevented, according to OSHA. By applying the principles of ergonomics—which are about fitting the job to the worker, rather than the worker to the job—you may be able to avoid or minimize muscle fatigue, or otherwise reduce both the number and the severity of work-related MSDs.

Work-related MSDs that require medical treatment beyond first aid, assignment to a light-duty job, or cause symptoms that last a week or longer, are called MSD incidents. If you have an MSD incident, you should report it to your employer. Employers are required by law to take your report seriously, to not seek retribution because you spoke up, and in most cases to provide the appropriate medical attention.

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By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.