It’s the most non-repetitive day of the year, so of course it’s the perfect time to talk about some little known facts about ergonomics and the impact of injuries to the workforce.

The impact of work injuries are typically vastly underestimated.  

The health impact and economic burden of workplace musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) are well documented. For example, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada reported that one in every 65 employed workers in 2009 were injured or harmed while on the job and subsequently received workers compensation. A large portion of these were MSIs. The Canadian economic burden of MSIs alone account for $2.65 – 3.94 billion dollars in direct costs and $13.73 – $18.37 billion dollars in indirect costs! Those are HUGE numbers!! If you are unfamiliar with Canada, to place these figures into perspective, back in 2009 Canada had a population of about 30 million people. 

What causes these types of injuries? 

In my opinion, during the 1990s and early 2000s, the ergonomics approach to resolving workplace risk and thereby injuries relied too heavily on physical risk factors. To be clear, I am not saying that these were not valuable approaches to improving the workplace. I am merely raising the question, could the impact of ergonomics be greater with the inclusion of another approach?

Typical physical risk factors assessed in the workplace include:

  • Force Ergonomics Help
  • Posture
  • Repetition
  • Duration
  • Heat/cold
  • Vibration

Today the tides of ergonomic risk assessments are slowly (perhaps even very slowly) shifting towards the awareness of psychosocial risk and its impact on the development of injury. Research has now proven that a combination of physical and psychosocial risks can increase the MSI development in the workforce.

Literature supports that injury prevention strategies only targeting physical risk factors run the risk of only modest reduction in the occurrence of MSI pain.

Combinations of both physical and psychosocial risk factors have been found to be related to the development of work stress otherwise known as job strain. When an individual’s work stress/job strain threshold is surpassed, either with physical or psychosocial risks, work-related MSI, discomfort, and/or pain could develop. Job strain can be defined through a job demand-control model, that states that a combination of high psychological job demands and low decision making authority at work (‘job control’) can result in an individual’s perception of strain.

Interestingly, in many studies, psychosocial aspects were found to be more strongly predictive of MSI pain and its progression than physical risk factors, solidifying such psychosocial factors as a target to improve outcomes in ergonomic interventions.  

Although there is a relationship among psychosocial risk and disability, these risks have notoriously been argued of being far more difficult than physical risk to quantify. And, this is why we don’t see a lot of campaigns from ergonomic consulting firms targeting psychosocial risk factors. Instead, wellness approaches tend to target psychosocial risk, but, in my opinion, these campaigns are usually not implemented in a systematic process and measured for results. A typical wellness approach could be to incorporate more walking into the workday or other general health promotion exercises. 

What you can do today to reduce injury risks. 

  1. Focus on improving the work characteristics found to be associated with a higher occurrence of MSIs. 
  2. Physical and psychosocial risk factors should be identified and controlled in order to have the greatest benefit (in system performance and sickness absence minimization).
  3. The best way to control risk is via the ergonomic approach.
  4. The high priority risks to focus on include:
  • Moderate to high physical risks (these are listed above)
  • Rapid work pace
  • Monotonous work
  • Low job satisfaction
  • Job stress and non work related stress
  • High job demands
  • Little control at work/low skill discretion
  • Low workplace social support from colleagues