While there are promising, well-established interventions to prevent workplace musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), “there is no silver bullet to mitigate this workplace concern,” according to a new white paper from the National Safety Council’s (NSC) MSD Solutions Lab.
Additional research is needed to identify measures that actually reduce MSD risks. The NSC called on employers to partner with research institutions to advance reduction and prevention initiatives.
“MSDs significantly undermine business efficiencies and workers’ abilities to live their fullest lives—and more must be done to reduce these chronic, debilitating injuries,” Paul Vincent, the NSC’s executive vice president of workplace practice, said in a statement from the group.
The NSC reported in 2020 that the private sector experienced more than 247,000 MSD injuries resulting in days away from work. The group cited Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index data showing that MSDs in the private sector cost businesses nearly $17 billion a year.
The MSD Solutions Lab reviewed electronic databases to identify peer-reviewed articles published within the last decade focused on the effectiveness of workplace interventions in preventing MSDs and MSD symptoms in the top 10 most affected industries, choosing a total of 58 articles for systematic literature review.
Reviewers concluded that interventions fell into three categories:
- Physical modifications, including modifications to the physical environment and equipment and physical activity;
- Cognitive processes, including mental processes and decision-making in the workplace; and
- Organizational change management—the realignment of organizational structures, policies, and processes to better address worker needs.
The group found that many strategies aim to eliminate workers’ exposures to MSD hazards and risk factors, but it may be challenging to eliminate workers’ exposures to all risk factors. However, an employer’s goal should remain to eliminate one or several risk factors, according to the NSC.
The group said employers should continue to examine and evaluate current interventions, explore emerging advancements, address limitations to implementation, and ensure effort is applied to understand and address workplace MSD risk factors.
Most interventions (71%) fell into the physical modification category. Before cognitive processes and organizational change management can be applied to mitigate MSD risks, more research is needed to make strong, definitive claims about their effectiveness, according to the NSC.
The NSC called for more extensive research in several areas:
- Innovative product designs, such as active suspension seats and patient-handling equipment and devices that have shown the potential to reduce exposure to MSD risks.
- Wearables and exoskeletons, which are perceived to have many workplace benefits. However, some studies cite adverse effects on body parts not stabilized by the exoskeleton or irritation on the body parts fitted to the device, highlighting the need for more research before widespread implementation.
- Additional research into MSD prevention measures among diverse populations.
- Physical activities such as stretching, walking, yoga, and Pilates, which may be viable solutions for providing workers with relief from musculoskeletal pain but require more research to understand their effectiveness across various industries.
The NSC’s MSD Solutions Lab is supported by corporate contributions from Amazon.com Inc. The unit conducts research and engages with workplace health and safety stakeholders to address MSD risk prevention by identifying new technology, innovating solutions, and scaling the results of research to benefit all workplaces.