ASSE: Preventing MSDs Requires Both Ergonomics, Behavioral Changes

June 15, 2004
A deconditioned, aging work force and an influx of obese, out-of-shape younger workers requires an approach to preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that combines ergonomic interventions and the promotion of healthy lifestyles, a physical therapist and ergonomics consultant told attendees at the American Society of Safety Engineers Professional Development Conference in Las Vegas.

Traditional ergonomic risk factors such as excessive force, repetition, awkward posture and vibration should be eliminated wherever possible, said Richard Bunch, Ph.D., P.T., but he added, "Can you really engineer out all these things? I don't think you can. So we also have to acknowledge behavior as a key risk factor."

Bunch, the CEO of Industrial Safety & Rehabilitation Institute Inc. in New Orleans, urged the adoption of an "integrated ergo-behavioral intervention program" that not only attempts to "reduce the occurrences of MSDs associated with poor work design and hazardous environmental conditions, but also those related to risky work and lifestyle behaviors."

Bunch said a majority of cancers and cardiovascular diseases are related to poor diet, lack of exercise and stress. These factors also put employees at increased risk of suffering ergonomic-related injuries. He noted that there was only a 3 percent difference between the incidence of back and musculoskeletal problems in office and field workers. The difference is that office workers suffered from inactivity, whereas construction workers suffer from overexertion.

Bunch said employers should scrutinize manual material handling jobs and eliminate those where employees are carrying heavy objects. Workers should avoid low or high lifts and lifts of loads over 35 pounds. Bunch said employers should strive to make carts and other equipment easily accessible so employees will use them to carry materials and equipment.

In a paper accompanying his talk, Bunch noted that, "the vast majority of lower back problems result from prolonged or highly repetitive flexion of the upper body (trunk) and excessive loading of the spine during improper material handling techniques. Therefore, common sense would dictate that the best way to prevent lower back injuries is to reduce prolonged or repetitive trunk flexion and reducing material handling demands via ergonomic and behavior-based interventions."

Bunch said downsized workplaces had resulted in pressured environments where employees put their own health last after commitments to work and family. "We need to teach employees to put their health as a priority because if you take care of yourself first, you are a better employee, spouse, father or mother," said Bunch. He said employers should encourage employees to report any symptoms of strain early so that an assessment could be conducted and intervention taken before expensive, disabling injury occurs.

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