Preventing MSDs: keeping it simple

Feb 19, 2013

By Ivan Szlapetis Calendar

Famed manager Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” Based on my 20 years of experience helping workplaces protect workers from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), I'd say the equation sums up MSD prevention quite well.

Whether you've selected MSD prevention as a Safety Group element, or you’re implementing CSA Z1004: Workplace Ergonomics, planning, setting standards, communicating and evaluating will take up much of your time. Research studies reported by the Institute for Work & Health and Liberty Mutual have shown how physical interventions, such as adjustable furniture, are only half of the solution. They prove ineffective without training, employee involvement and proper supervision.

As one of the co-authors of OHSCO’s MSD prevention resource manual and toolboxes, I am aware that the size and complexity of a formal ergonomics program can startle some people, causing them to look away when presented with an “ergonomics problem.” To significantly reduce the number of musculoskeletal disorders resulting from these “problems,” maybe we need to consider simplifying the solutions. In recognition of Canada’s national RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) Awareness Day, February 28, here are eight ideas to consider implementing. Together, they can significantly improve health in your workplace and give you something to celebrate on next year’s RSI Day.

  1. Communicate your objectives in a way that people can relate to. When people hear the word “ergonomics,” what words to they actually hear? Expensive? Complicated? Flavour-of-the-month? At a recent conference hosted by the Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE-MSD), Ryerson University researcher Dr. Patrick Neumann presented a key research finding from his work with a group of engineering managers. He found that reducing fatigue was the third most common concept/objective identified by the managers, next to increasing quality and improving system design. They understood that reducing fatigue could not only reduce injuries but also increase attention, improve morale, and reduce the opportunity for error, absenteeism and stress. Workers can identify with feeling so tired at the end of the day they don’t have the energy to enjoy much of a life at home. If you use phrases like, “we want to reduce worker fatigue” instead of “we’re implementing a musculoskeletal disorder prevention program,” you might get more buy-in from employees and management.

  2. Obtain approval to spend some money. Some companies budget for health and safety improvements, but even if it’s only $50 for coffee and doughnuts during ergo team meetings, it is meaningful. In my experience, people who feel they don’t have management’s blessing to spend even a nickel on ergonomic improvements tend to be incapacitated to innovate. A lot of great ideas can be implemented for little or no cost. CSA’s workplace ergonomics standard has a section on resources related to management commitment. If there is one concrete way that managers can show commitment, it is by allocating money. But… money can’t buy everything.

  3. Request leadership support through concrete actions. In my experience as an ergonomics consultant, all of the managers I’ve met have good intentions. However, it is action that separates managers from leaders. Approving a new policy or a request for training is good. Showing active support is even better. I've delivered training sessions at which the owner or a senior director kicked off the session by introducing me to the employees and stating how important their health and safety is to them personally and the company. I've also had to introduce myself to a group of shift workers after one of them stormed in shouting, “Who's the instructor?! This training is a complete waste of time!” You can imagine which situation had better training outcomes.

  4. Involve a cross-section of your organization. The most effective way of implementing an MSD prevention program is to involve workers, supervisors and other key people in identifying, assessing and controlling the hazards. People who have become accustomed to doing their job a certain way may feel very uncomfortable with the prospect of changing anything, even if the change is intended to help them feel more comfortable physically. Meaningful participation by the stakeholders prevents good ideas from dying a miserable death. WSPS has training programs and workshops designed to involve a cross-section of your workforce in the problem-solving process.

  5. Challenge the status quo. If you want to engage your employees, quit putting them to sleep with boring, “same old” information. Unexpected messages “stick” better and may be more helpful. Take safe lifting training, for example. In a 1975 article, University of Toronto researcher Dr. John Brown stated, “The straight back, bent knees technique has been enthusiastically promoted for 40 years with no decrease in back injuries… which raises a question as to the benefit of the lifting technique advocated.” Our understanding of spine biomechanics has advanced dramatically since the 1930s, yet people still promote the same tired and sometimes impractical “straight back, bent knees” solutions. At our 2012 Partners in Prevention conference, I demonstrated an alternative lifting technique that is easier on the knees and reduces harmful shear forces on the spine. If you're going to invest time in training your workers to lift properly, provide the most current information and challenge perceptions.

  6. Appoint coaches, not cops. Encourage rather than enforce proper techniques. What enforcers fail to realize is that proper lifting and other preventive techniques are physical movements that our muscles must learn, just like hitting a slap shot or typing without looking at the keys. Knowing how doesn't mean my muscles will move accordingly. Some people may have muscle imbalances that need retraining, which may take time. This means supervisors need to coach employees, providing appropriate feedback and encouragement.

  7. Evaluate using appropriate leading indicators. Evaluation is an essential step in a managed systems approach, such as CSA-Z1000 and WSIB Safety Groups. Resist the temptation to use lost-time injury statistics as the sole measure of your health and safety program. While an important metric, it is a lagging indicator that can be influenced by so many different factors, including the economy, the age of the employees, and the years of exposure to risks. You and others in your workplace can learn assessment techniques that quantify the level of risk. Health, discomfort and engagement surveys can also provide important metrics that will help prioritize your efforts and identify areas of concern that could cause injuries.

  8. Emphasize continual improvement as the path to improved health. Musculoskeletal disorders are very real. So too is the relationship between physical demands and psychosocial factors - things like perceptions, relationships, and stress. This scares a lot of people because they believe stress can't be eliminated. They're right, but stress can be optimized to improve performance, as Yogi Berra so wisely alluded to. Improve workplace health by increasing the positive effects of psychosocial factors, such as control, support and reward. For example, while change can be stressful you can increase feelings of control by promoting participation in decision-making. Support from supervisors and co-workers is important for identifying issues early, before they become disabling and deeply-rooted problems. Pre-shift toolbox talks and post-shift debriefing sessions are good ways to increase feelings of connectedness and share ideas for improvement. Formal and informal recognition can increase satisfaction and offset stress.

While psychosocial factors affect every step of a managed system approach to ergonomics, the final continual improvement step is perhaps most critical. Communicating results of the ergonomics intervention, even if it was not entirely successful, helps to build trust by acknowledging effort, the learning, and the successes realized by this process.

In the traditional hierarchy of controls, physical workplace modifications are the preferred health and safety solutions. However, planning, training, evaluating, and communicating are the less tangible yet critical steps that will enable you to achieve and recognize success.

Ivan Szlapetis is an ergonomist and key account manager with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services.

How WSPS can help

  1. Review our extensive library of resources on managing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)
  2. New! Check out Managing Hazards, a half-day public course, also available for on-site delivery.
  3. Talk to a consultant about conducting an MSD hazard assessment in your workplace. Call 905-614-1400 or 1-877-494 WSPS (9777).
  4. Explore other WSPS resources that contribute to health and safety performance, such as:
  5. Attend MSD-related sessions at Partners in Prevention Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show. Download the preliminary guide now.