Scientific evidence shows that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) of the lower back and upper extremities can be attributed to particular jobs and working conditions, including heavy lifting, repetitive motion, and stressful work environments, according to a report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
Each year, these disorders affect about 1 million workers and cost the nation between $45 billion and $54 billion in compensation costs, lost wages and decreased productivity.
However, this study says that these problems can be reduced with well-designed intervention programs.
"Scientifically based prevention efforts can be effective in the workplace, substantially reducing the risk of job-related musculoskeletal disorders," said Jeremiah Barondess, chair of the panel that wrote the report and president of the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City. "However, the connection between the workplace and these disorders is complex, partly because of the individual characteristics of workers -- such as age, gender and lifestyle."
Lower back pain, tendenitis, nonspecific writs complaints and carpal tunnel syndrome are among the disorders that have considerable social and economic impact, with back pain making up the overwhelming majority of shared problems, said the report.
Scientific evidence and industry data strongly indicate that properly implemented strategies to reduce the incidence, severity and consequences of work-related musculoskeletal disorders can be effective, the panel said.
"A magic bullet does not exist, but successful programs can be found in a variety of job settings, and they take into account procedures, equipment and characteristics specific to the organization," said researchers.
When OSHA began making plans to implement its ergonomics standard, Congress asked the National Academies to review scientific evidence on work-related causes of MSDs as well as prevention strategies.
The Academies'' panel evaluated scientific literature on the topic, invited outside experts to share insights at its meetings and visited two Ford Motor Co. plants as part of its research.
There is a strong relationship between back disorders and jobs where workers manually lift materials, frequently bend and twist their bodies or experience whole-body vibration from motor vehicles, the report said.
A rapid work pace, monotonous work, low job satisfaction, little decision-making power and high levels of job stress are also associated with back disorders.
For upper-extremity disorders, repetition, force and vibration are important risk factors, the report noted.
In addition, highly demanding and stressful work environments are consistently associated with the occurrence of this type of MSD.
The researchers said that among men, those who work as construction laborers, carpenters and operators of industrial truck or tractor equipment are at the highest risk for developing MSDs.
For women, the highest-risk jobs are in nursing or nursing support, and in domestic or commercial cleaning and janitorial work.
But MSDs are a problem in many industries -- from agriculture, manufacturing and mining to finance, the service sector and transportation, the report said.
Although general principles to reduce the risk of work-related MSDs can be used to develop intervention strategies, programs must be tailored to specific workplaces, said the researchers. And these programs must be evaluated over time.
Because the nation lacks a uniform and comprehensive method to gather and track data on MSDs, a coordinated and standardized data-collection system is needed, added the report.
In conclusion, the researchers suggested that the Bureau of Labor Statistics provide more comprehensive surveillance of work-related MSDs by obtaining from employers specific information about jobs, workplace illnesses and the characteristics of workers performing certain jobs.
Labor Says NAS Study Confirms Need For Ergonomics Standard
The findings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace was hailed by labor organizations as proving the need for OSHA''s new ergonomics standard.
"The report confirms that musculoskeletal workplace injuries are caused by exposure to ergonomic hazards, that they can be prevented, and that the interventions required by the new OSHA rule are the most effective means to protect the health and safety of workers," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
The NAS report was requested by industry groups and Congress as a means of gathering more scientific information on the problems of MSDs.
However, labor officials said this report puts to rest the claims by some industry groups and Republican members of Congress that there is no scientific evidence that musculoskeletal disorders are caused by workplace exposures.
"The NAS study confirms what millions of American workers have learned the hard way: repetitive motion causes workplace injuries," said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Gerald McEntee. "I am sure that the anti-worker members of Congress who ordered this report are not happy with the findings by one of the world''s most esteemed scientific organizations."
The NAS report concluded that 1 million workers in many industries take time off because of MSDs but that problems could be corrected by "properly implemented strategies."
OSHA has given employers covered by the standard until Oct. 16, 2001 to provide information to their employees about MSDs, how to report injuries and the requirement of the new rule.
In light of the new study, McEntee and Sweeney called on President Bush, Republicans in Congress and business groups to stop threatening to block OSHA''s standard from going into effect.
"The AFL-CIO is asking the new Congress and the incoming Bush Administration to stand with American workers," said Sweeney.
"It''s time for the new president to fulfill his pledge to heal wounds by working with us to create a safer work environment for all employees," added McEntee.
by Virginia Sutcliffe