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Ergonomics and preventing work-related musculoskeletal symptoms and disorders

| Updated: May 16, 2021 20:06:34

Ergonomics and preventing work-related musculoskeletal symptoms and disorders

Work-related musculoskeletal symptoms and disorders (MSSDs) are among the most repeatedly reported causes of missed workdays or restricted work time among workers in many industrialised countries and according to one estimate, MSSD cases account for about one-third of all worker injury and illness cases in the United States (USA). In Bangladesh, despite the lack of data, it can be fairly predicted that MSSDs are a highly prevalent and recurrent health issue for the very large and growing labour-force in the formal as well as informal sector. Given workplaces in Bangladesh are depending more on machines, automation is taking over many work processes and there is a shift of the Bangladesh economy from its traditionally large manufacturing and agricultural sector to service sector, diverse and novel types of workplace hazards will become prevalent that may harm workers' health, safety, and wellbeing in new and different ways.

MSSDs affect the muscles, blood vessels, ligaments, nerves and tendons of employees; employees in many different industrial sectors and jobs are exposed to risk factors at work while moving weighty objects, working in awkward body positions, pushing and dragging heavy loads, twisting, reaching overhead, and performing the similar or similar tasks time and again. Experiencing these known risk factors raises an employee's risk of injury or illness.

Examples of MSSDs include Carpal tunnel syndrome, Tendinitis, Epicondylitis, Trigger finger, Muscle strains, Rotator cuff injuries  and low back injuries.

High-risk occupations for MSSDs include nurses and other direct patient care providing healthcare workers, firefighters, tractor and truck drivers, transit and long-distance bus drivers, refuse, garbage and recyclable material collectors, janitors and cleaners, stock and material movers, stock clerks and order fillers, house and office maids and housekeeping cleaners, light truck or delivery vehicle drivers, telecommunications, internet and cable line installers and repairers, production workers, police and law enforcement officers, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers, plumbers, pipefitters, and septic or water pump maintenance and repair workers [source: Bureau of Labour Statistics, USA]. In addition to all these occupations, the drivers of informal vehicles such as autovan, mishuk, nosimon, korimon, bhotbhoti, Mahindra are also at high risk of suffering from MSSDs in Bangladesh.

However, work-related MSSDs can be prevented. Ergonomics helps reduce muscle fatigue, increases workplace productivity, and decreases the number and severity of work-related MSSDs. This is a new discipline in Bangladesh and an introduction to Ergonomics and Ergonomists here may help.

Ergonomics is the study of individuals in their working environment. An ergonomist designs or adjusts the work to fit the worker, not the opposite. The goal is to reduce discomfort and injury or illness hazards during work. To put it another way, the employee is the main interest in evaluating a workstation. International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as "the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among human and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance."

Ergonomics, originated from the Greek ergon (work) and nomos (laws), implies the science of work. It helps synchronise the workplace with people by adapting it. It is important because when a worker is doing a job, the body may be stressed by an awkward position or recurring movement. The worker's body may begin to have symptoms such as fatigue, discomfort, and pain, which can be the first signs of an MSSD. Ergonomics is designing a job to fit it to the worker, so the work is made safer and more efficient. Applying ergonomic solutions can make employees more comfortable and enhance workplace productivity.

Physical ergonomics is involved with physical activity and it deals with issues such as working postures, materials handling, work-related MSSD, repetitive movements, workplace layout, safety and health. Cognitive ergonomics is about mental processes and pertinent topics include mental workload, skilled performance, human-computer interaction, decision-making, human reliability, work stress and training. Lastly, organizational ergonomics is about the optimisation of socio-technical systems and relevant topics include virtual organisations, telework, work design, design of working times, teamwork, and quality management.

The industry owners are in charge of offering a safe and healthy workplace. In the workplace, the number and severity of MSSDs can be substantially lessened by applying ergonomic principles. The risk of developing MSSDs can be lowered in high-risk industries such as construction, healthcare, transportation, firefighting, food processing, office jobs, and warehousing.

A process for protecting workers in any workplace requires to follow these steps: 1) identify problems, 2) encourage early reporting of symptoms, 3) implement solutions to control, and 4) evaluate progress. Risk reduction techniques proved in other countries that can be followed in Bangladesh include these: workers may 1) rotate jobs throughout the day, 2) change tasks often within the job, 3) break each job up into smaller or different tasks, 4) determine the risk factors for each task, 5) determine how each task contributes to risk for the total job, and 6) then select appropriate tools.

Extensive training on ergonomics in Bangladesh can educate workers on the risk factors for MSSD, and how ergonomics can make their work simpler, efficient, and safer. Such training help staff to identify job tasks that may present a risk and decide better ways to complete those tasks. Training confirms that workers are cognizant of ergonomics and its benefits, become knowledgeable about workplace concerns and recognise the value of reporting hazards early.

A strong pledge by top management is vital to the realisation of an ergonomic intervention process. Management should set clear goals and objectives, assess them with their workers, designate assignments to selected staff members, and convey clearly their ideas to the workforce. Workers can detect and furnish important evidence about prevailing hazards in workplaces. Workers need to be engaged in worksite assessments, solution development, and execution of an ergonomic intervention. They can assist by expressing their worries and making recommendations and they can then evaluate the changes made as a result of a workplace intervention.


Hasnat M Alamgir is a Professor of Public Health. 

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