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MSDs hurt corporate bottom lines

By Nestor E. Arellano

Each year, thousands of Canadian employees seek extended time off from work due to inflamed joints, deteriorating tendons, damaged tissues and other symptoms associated with work-related musculoskeletal disorders or WMSD.

Considered one of the most common types of injury in the workplace, WMSD accounts for nearly 49 per cent of all lost-time days across the country, according to industry experts. Each year, thousands of Canadian employees seek extended time off fromwork due to inflamed joints, deteriorating tendons, damaged tissues andother symptoms associated with work-related musculoskeletal disorders or WMSD.

Considered one of the most common types of injury in the workplace,WMSD accounts for nearly 49 per cent of all lost-time days across thecountry, according to industry experts. In Ontario alone, employers paid in excess of $12 billion in direct and indirect costs related to WMSD from 1996 to 2004, according to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

With the average lost-time injury costs today running to more than $98,000, WSIB projects that some businesses would need to raise more than $1.5 million in sales to recover the cost of a single injury.

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are essentially a group of painful disorders of muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, cartilage and nerves. Disease in any of these areas may result in inability to walk, sit, and move fingers and hands or even breathe. WMSD is generally accompanied by limited physical function, fatigue and mild to severe debilitating pain.

While some of the disorders could result from or be aggravated by previous injuries, congenital defects or conditions such as pregnancy, there are three main factors considered as crucial causes of WMSDs, according to Sharon Taylor, proprietor of ErgoSum Consulting Inc., an Edmonton-based ergonomics consulting firm.

“Most WMSD injuries are caused by either repetitive movement, bad posture and pressure or any combination of these key factors,” said Taylor, whose company provides ergonomics assessment services for government offices and many organizations in the energy sector.

Workers engaged in repetitive tasks such as factory work, sorting or typing are at most risk of WMSD because tissues, joints and muscles often cannot recover from the repeated strain caused by these tasks.

Bad posture or uncomfortable body position during work can place undue strain on certain regions of the body, squeeze muscles and blood vessels and result in musculoskeletal injuries.

Constant vibration such as those caused by power tools or other equipment, or the application of force when a body part is in an awkward position can also damage tissues and joints.

Prevention methods

Many WMSD injuries can be prevented or alleviated with the adoption of appropriate workplace ergonomic programs and processes, according to Taylor.

Ergonomics is the application of scientific information concerning objects, systems and environment for human use. Its goal is to make interaction of humans with their work environment and machines as smooth as possible to enhance performance, reduce error and prevent injury.

Ergonomics can be helpful in dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome which often strike employees engaged in continuous activities involving hand and finger movements such as typing or sorting materials.

Injuries associated with this type of disorder can be prevented by simply varying the pace of work or rotating tasks to reduce monotony and enable workers to use a different set of muscles.

Other cases can be addressed by a workplace redesign, says Ivan Szlapetis, ergonomics specialist with the Ontario-based Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA), a not-for-profit workplace health and safety training organization.

“The solution can be as simple and inexpensive as adjusting the height of a desk or giving workers the option to sit or stand,” he said.

Other cases, Szlapetis said, might require the replacement of tools, fixtures or equipment. “The idea is to design the workplace or workstation to reduce strain and awkward movements.”

Ideally, ergonomics should be built into a workplace at the onset. If that’s not possible, companies should consider calling for an ergonomics assessment when telltale signs of WMSD risks among workers begin to appear.

“When HR receives frequent strain injury claims or when there’s a lot of absenteeism, this could be your cue for calling in an ergonomics specialist,” said Szlapetis.

An ergonomic specialist can evaluate the worker and workstation dynamics and recommend the appropriate action to take. Some consultancy firms can also provide information and training sessions for employees and health and safety officers to reinforce the importance of ergonomics.

The information and guidance achieved through this exercise should be used to create a workplace ergonomics policy. An in-house committee ideally made up of workers and supervisors must be set-up to monitor workplace conditions and compliance with the policies.

Bottom line issue

Apart from the economic toll on a company’s bottom line, WMSD can also be accompanied by stiff fines and penalties. Some jurisdictions fine supervisors and managers up to $25,000 and owners up to $500,000 for failing to provide workers with safety workplaces. Jail terms of up to six months can also be leveled against violators.

British Columbia and Saskatchewan have had ergonomics regulations in place for years, while in other provinces such as Ontario, ergonomic regulations fall under the General Duty clause of the Canada Labour Code.

Despite the increasing economic risks to businesses, many companies fail to initiate programs to prevent WMSD in their organization, says Jane Sleeth, owner and senior consultant with Optimal Performance Inc., an ergonomic, ability and disability consultancy firm with offices in Toronto and Vancouver.

The top 10 to 15 per cent of employers in Canada have a handle on ergonomic-related issues, but most senior level executives are not aware of the impact of ergonomics on worker productivity and profits, she said.

“One of the reasons why musculoskeletal injuries remain the most common injury in the workplace is because many employers in Canada do not have any formal ergonomic program or process in place,” she noted. This is the reason why compensation boards and ministries of labour are intervening in the workplace, she added.

Recently, the Canadian Auto Workers Union has been pushing through contract negotiations and legal grievances to have ergonomics nationalized across Canada, Sleeth said. Despite the prevalence of no-fault workers compensation systems in the country, more lawyers are also beginning to litigate on behalf of employees with WMSD, she added.

Sleeth said the best defence for companies is for human resources and senior management teams to realize the impact of WMSD and to move forward with ergonomic preventive maintenance programs.

“In the past, companies have improved profitability with preventive maintenance programs for machinery. This thinking now needs to shift towards preventive maintenance for the human element, the worker,” she said.

Nestor E. Arellano is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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