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Ergonomics and the Prevention of
Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders


Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker. When there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can result.

Ergonomics encompasses the practice of designing equipment and work tasks to conform to the capability of the worker. It provides a means for adjusting the work environment and work practices to prevent injuries before they occur.

PPE includes devices for protecting the eyes, face, head and extremities as well as protective clothing, protective shields and barriers.

Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

Although definitions vary, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) describes the general term “musculoskeletal disorders” or MSDs as follows:

  • disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage or spinal discs

  • disorders that are not typically the result of any instantaneous or acute event (such as a slip, trip or fall) but reflect a more gradual or chronic development

  • disorders diagnosed by a medical history, physical examination, or other medical tests that can range in severity from mild and intermittent to debilitating and chronic

  • disorders with several distinct features (such as carpel tunnel syndrome) as well as disorders defined primarily by the location of the pain (i.e., low back pain)

The term “Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders” refers to: (1) musculoskeletal disorders to which the work environment and the performance of work contribute significantly, or (2) musculoskeletal disorders that are made worse or longer lasting by work conditions.

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Status of the Regulation

Neither the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) nor New Jersey PEOSH have a specific ergonomics standard. At present, serious ergonomics hazards in New Jersey public sector workplaces are addressed following federal OSHA's lead, under the General Duty Clause.

The General Duty Clause of the PEOSH Act describes the employer's obligation to "furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees." This clause is utilized to cite serious hazards where no specific PEOSH standard exists to address the hazard, as is the case with ergonomic stressors. When PEOSH uses the General Duty Clause to cite an employer, it must demonstrate that:

  1. the employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees were exposed,
  2. the hazard was causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm,
  3. the hazard was recognized, and
  4. a feasible means of abatement for that hazard exists.

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Voluntary Guidelines

Although a mandatory ergonomics standard does not exist, PEOSH and OSHA have issued the following voluntary guidelines:

  • PEOSH Computer Workstation Guidelines
    One occupational setting where a large number of public employees in New Jersey work is the office building. PEOSH developed these guidelines for preventing musculoskeletal disorders in workplaces where employees use computer workstations. The guidelines are designed to help provide computer operators with ergonomically designed furniture and equipment, workstations that have well-designed lighting, appropriate training and vision care information.

  • Federal OSHA Guidelines for High Risk Industries
    Federal OSHA has developed five sets of industry and task-specific guidelines for industries with high rates of musculoskeletal disorders: Nursing Homes, Retail Grocery Stores, Shipyards, Poultry Processing and Meatpacking Plants. Employers in other industries for which guidelines have not been developed may find this information useful in implementing their own ergonomics programs.

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Preventing Musculoskeletal Disorders Through Implementation of An Ergonomics Program

An effective occupational safety and health program that addresses ergonomic hazards includes the following major program elements:

Management Leadership/Employee Involvement

Management leadership and employee involvement are complementary and essential elements of a sound safety and health program. Commitment by management provides the organizational resources and motivating force necessary to deal effectively with ergonomic hazards. Employee involvement and feedback through clearly established procedures are likewise essential, both to identify existing and potential hazards and to develop and implement an effective way to abate such hazards. Additional employee input can be sought:

  • by speaking with employees
  • by conducting symptom surveys
  • through use of employee questionnaires

Workplace Analysis

Workplace analysis identifies existing hazards and conditions, operations that create hazards, and areas where hazards may develop. Be aware of common contributing conditions within your industry or job classifications. If other companies in the same industry have ergonomic-related problems, then it is possible these potential problems are also your concern. Workplace analysis also includes close scrutiny and tracking of injury and illness records to identify patterns that may indicate development of MSDs.

  • Review and analyze injury and illness records to determine whether there is a pattern of ergonomic-related injuries in certain jobs or work tasks.
    • NJOSH 300 Logs
    • NJOSH 301 forms or the first report of injury
    • Workers' Compensation claims

  • Analyze the jobs or work tasks themselves to identify potential ergonomic problems before employee injuries occur. Ergonomic risk factors to consider may include, but are not limited to:
Risk Factor Example
Awkward Postures
  • prolonged work with hands above the head or with the elbows above the shoulders
  • prolonged work with the neck bent
  • squatting, kneeling, or lifting
  • handling objects with back bent or twisted
  • repeated or sustained bending or twisting of wrists, knees, hips or shoulders
  • forceful and repeated gripping or pinching
Forceful Lifting, Pushing or Pulling
  • handling heavy objects
  • moving bulky or slippery objects
  • assuming awkward postures while moving objects
Prolonged Repetitive Motion
  • keying
  • using tools or knives
  • packaging, handling, or manipulating objects
Contact Stress
  • repeated contact with hard or sharp objects, like desk or table edges
  • overuse of power hand tools

OSHA Analysis of Jobs and Work Tasks Web Page

Hazard Prevention and Control

Once ergonomic hazards are identified through the systematic worksite analysis discussed above, the next step is to design measures to prevent or control these hazards. 

A three-tier hierarchy of controls is widely accepted as an intervention strategy for controlling workplace hazards: 1) engineering controls; 2) administrative controls, and; 3) personal protective equipment. Although engineering controls are preferred, administrative controls can be helpful as temporary measures or until engineering controls can be implemented.

NIOSH recommends the following steps in hazard control:

  1. Reduce or eliminate potentially hazardous conditions using engineering controls

    • Change the way materials, parts and products are transported
    • Reduce the need for manual lifting or use of manual force
    • Use adjustable height work stations and material containers
    • Modify workstation layout to keep tools and materials within short reaching distances
    • Improve tool design

  2. Change work practices and management policies to reduce or prevent exposures to ergonomic risk factors

    • Alter schedules to include more rest breaks
    • Rotate workers through jobs that are physically tiring
    • Broaden or vary the job content to offset risk factors
    • Adjust work pace to relieve repetitive motion risks and give workers more control
    • Train workers to recognize ergonomic risk factors and learn techniques for reducing stress and strain while performing their worktasks

The State of Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation has published useful examples of effective ergonomics control measures for public sector settings in their publication: "Ergonomics Best Practices for Public Employers."

  1. Use personal protective equipment

  2. PPE should be selected with ergonomic stressors in mind. It should not contribute to extreme postures and excessive forces. Whether the use of PPE worn or used by the employee (such as wrist supports, back belts or vibration attenuating gloves) offers protection against ergonomic hazards remains open to question. On the basis of a review of the scientific literature, NIOSH concluded that there is insufficient evidence to prove the effectiveness of back belts in preventing back injuries related to manual handling jobs (see NIOSH's Back Belts - Do They Prevent Injury?). Less controversial types of PPE are vibration attenuating gloves and knee pads for carpet layers.

Medical Management

Implementation of a medical management system is a major element in the employer's ergonomics program. Proper medical management is necessary to eliminate or materially reduce the risk of MSD signs and symptoms through early identification and treatment. Thus an effective medical management program is essential to the success of an employer's ergonomics program. In an effective program, health care providers will be part of the team, interacting with and exchanging information routinely in order to prevent and properly treat MSDs.

Training and Education

For ergonomics, the overall goal of training is to enable managers, supervisors, and employees to identify aspects of job tasks that may increase a worker's risk of developing MSDs, recognize the signs and symptoms of disorders, and participate in development of strategies to control or prevent them. The program should be designed and implemented by qualified persons and tailored to the specific concerns in the workplace. Special training should be provided for persons administering the program.

NIOSH recommends the following levels of ergonomics training and associated objectives based on employee categories:

Type of Employee Type of Training
All employees

Ergonomics Awareness Training with the following objectives:

  • Recognize workplace risk factors for MSDs
  • Identify signs and symptoms for MSDs
  • Know the process the employer is using to control risk factors and how to participate
  • Understand procedures for reporting MSDs and ergonomic risk factors

Every employee in a job with ergonomic risk factors

Formal Awareness Instruction and Job-Specific Training
  • Awareness training plus:
  • Demonstrate how to use selected control measures
Every employee involved in job hazard analysis and control development

Training in Job Hazard Analysis and Control Measures with the following objectives:

  • Demonstrate the way to do a job analysis for identifying risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders
  • Select says to implement and evaluate control measures
Ergonomics team or work group

Training in Problem-Solving

  • Identify the departments, areas, and jobs with risk factors through a review of company reports, records, walk-through observations, and special surveys
  • Identify tools and techniques that can be used to conduct job analyses and serve as a basis for recommendations
  • Develop skills in team building, consensus development, and problem-solving
  • Recommend ways to control ergonomic hazards using employee and professional input

Additional Resources

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-12 08:57:35