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How to identify and prevent repetitive strain injuries

Each year, on the last day in February, professionals around the world celebrate International Repetitive Strain Injury Awareness Day; a day devoted to highlighting the prevalence of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) - otherwise known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) - among workers. Awareness is great - but prevention of RSIs is a year-round activity.

According to the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training, and Skills Development, MSDs remain the number-one type of lost-time injury reported to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB); “accounting for approximately 34-40% of all WSIB claims,” says Don Patten, Specialized Consultant (Ergonomics) at WSPS.

To prevent MSDs, it’s important to follow ergonomic best practices when we perform our jobs. Don cautions, “These types of injuries can creep up on us. By the time we start feeling pain, the injury has already occurred.” If not addressed, MSDs can significantly disrupt our lives. 

“The reason we have RSI Day is because we want to educate people so that they recognize that the discomfort they may be feeling could be the beginning of an MSD,” says Don. “We encourage early reporting because if you identify an MSD in the early stages, treat it, and adjust your workstation or how you are doing a particular task, you have a much better chance of recovery. The longer the injury lingers, the more damage is done, and the likelihood of getting back to your full capacity diminishes.”

Symptoms and Hazards

MSDs are injuries of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs. Symptoms include pain, tingling, and numbness in the back, neck, wrists, shoulders, and knees.  

“Obviously, these types of injuries make it more difficult to perform your job, but they also have a negative impact on what you can do outside of work,” says Don. When you are experiencing pain from an MSD, it often limits the activities you can do with friends and family, which in turn can lead to poor mental health. 

As the name suggests, RSIs (or MSDs) are mainly caused by repetitive movements and awkward postures. “Repetition is a big one because even if you are in a neutral posture and the movement doesn’t require much force or exertion, the fact that you are repeating the movement can still lead to an injury,” Don points out. Employees who regularly work with machinery that causes vibration is also something to watch. “Exposure to vibration over long periods of time – whether whole body or arms and hands – will damage nerves and blood vessels. And the damage may not be reversible,” says Don. Forceful activities such as heavy lifting, pushing, and pulling are also common hazards.

What employers can do 

Manual material handling almost always involves some combination of MSD hazards. Automation is an obvious solution to eliminate the risk; however, it may not always be a practical solution. “Making changes to reduce the risk of MSDs doesn’t have to include large capital investments,” says Don. Here are a few simple things employers can do. 

  1. Educate employees. Provide training so that employees have a good understanding of MSD hazards (i.e., what makes it an MSD hazard). When employees can recognize these hazards, they can report them to their employer or supervisor and include them in risk assessments for the development of safe job procedures.  
  2. Move away from lagging indicators. Don’t wait until someone reports pain or takes time off work due to an MSD. Regularly review your work processes to identify and control MSD hazards. Include MSD hazards in your regular workplace inspections.
  3. Avoid repetition. Regardless of what the task is, organize the work so that employees are not doing the same thing all day. Limiting repetitive movements will reduce the risk of employees developing an MSD.

“People often think aches and pains are a part of everyday life as we get older. While that may be somewhat true, it’s not always the case,” says Don. “We want people to have a better understanding of the hazards and symptoms of MSDs so that they can properly address them. We never want people to live with an MSD long-term.”

How WSPS can help

Connect with a WSPS ergonomics expert to help you understand the MSD hazards in your workplace.


Managing Hazards and Risks (3.5 hours, Online Instructor-Led Training)

Other Resources

MSD Hazards Checklist: Warehousing

Manual Material Handling (video)

Safe Lifting (video)

Ergonomics – Work Shouldn’t Hurt (guide)

Repetitive Strain Injury Day resources from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety