After months of pandemic inactivity, employees who are heading back to work may be much more vulnerable to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), says WSPS Ergonomics Consultant Tanya Muller. An MSD hazard occurs when we don’t design the job to match workers’ capabilities.
"We're not in good shape now," she explains. "Due to the pandemic, we have been very sedentary. We haven't been exercising or going to the gym, or even commuting to the office." The consequences of less physical activity: reduced cardiovascular fitness, endurance, muscle strength, range of motion, and mental health, exacerbated by weight gain.
Because any of these consequences can weaken our musculoskeletal systems, returning workers are more likely to suffer musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) when carrying out tasks that involve reaching, lifting, sitting, standing, carrying, or climbing. MSDs were already Ontario's most common compensable workplace injury before the pandemic, resulting in over 40% of all lost-time injuries.
By following these five steps recommended by Tanya, you can help reduce the risk of MSDs and related costs.
- Make sure workstations are ergonomically designed. Tanya notes that some employees returning to the workplace may even now be showing signs of injury from months working at makeshift workstations. Awkward postures resulting from improper placement of monitors, keyboards, desks, and mice can cause neck, shoulder, back, arm, and wrist discomfort, increasing the potential for developing MSDs. "By ensuring returning employees can assume good posture in the workplace, we can reduce the risk of injury."
- Offer a gradual transition to the workplace, and reduce workloads initially. Start with shorter shifts. For instance, four hours instead of eight hours, suggests Tanya. "Servers who come back full time after not working for 18 months are going to be really fatigued carrying loaded trays and being on their feet all day, which puts them at risk of shoulder and back strain, muscle aches, and slips, trips and falls." Gradually increase workload as employees regain strength and tolerance, limit overtime, and offer more flexible working hours to minimize risk and allow workers to maintain a good work/life balance.
- Assess whether COVID-19 controls may contribute to MSD risks. COVID-19 controls are mandatory, legislated requirements that must be followed. But solutions can be found to eliminate MSD risks. For example, an improperly placed barrier may cause a worker to reach to the side or over the top, creating strain and potential MSDs. The barrier can be adjusted with the guidance of an ergonomist.
- Minimize force and repetition - red flags for MSDs. For instance, make sure items that returning workers have to lift and carry are not excessively heavy, says Tanya. Aim for minimal weight or within acceptable guidelines (see safe lifting resources below). Create more micro breaks for workers who must sit or stand all day. "The breaks will provide opportunities to either sit down and rest, or stand up and stretch, depending on the situation."
- 5. Increase employee awareness of MSD prevention. Revisit your MSD awareness training so that employees understand what the risks are, how to identify problems at their workstations, and how to report discomfort to their supervisors. "Then adjust, fix, or provide necessary equipment or controls," says Tanya. Emphasize the importance of physical fitness, stretching, and strength training. "People may still be hesitant to go to the gym due to COVID-19, so organize a walking club or some other form of physical activity during lunch and breaks."
How WSPS can help
We offer a wide range of resources to help you prevent MSDs, including:
- knowledgeable consultants who can carry out an array of assessments and propose cost-effective recommendations
- MSD Awareness (2 hours)
- Office MSD Awareness and Coaching (2+ hours)
- Conducting Office Ergonomic Assessments (1 day)
- Safe Lifting (1/2 day)
- Building an MSD Prevention Program (four 1/2 day modules)
- Lifting It Right
- Manual Materials Handling
- Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs): Prevention
- Office Ergonomics
- Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs): Awareness
- Office Workstation Design
- WSPS Ergonomics Poster
- Work Warm-up, Stretch and Flexibility Program
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.