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Risk Management

Musculoskeletal Disorders: Risk Factors, Recovery, and Prevention

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders cost companies millions annually. Knowing the risk factors and implementing related prevention methods in risk management programs can lead to a healthier, more productive workforce.

April 21, 2023

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are a group of painful disorders involving muscles, tendons, and nerves. According to reports, these injuries account for nearly one-third of all workers’ compensation claims. The most common WMSDs are back injuries and those involving overexertion or repetitive motions. Soft-tissue injuries such as sprains, strains, tears, hernias, and carpal tunnel syndrome are other examples of common WMSDs.

“Preventing musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace is beneficial not only to employers, but to employees as well,” said Lisa Strader, Senior Medical Manager at Safety National. “Proactive planning can lead to a reduction in costs, increased productivity and quality, along with an overall engaged and safe workplace. When all parties have the injured worker’s recovery outlook initially defined, the expectations can be more clearly outlined.”

Risk Factors

Certain jobs and industries are more prone to WMSDs than others. Typically, more male than female workers are affected, and the manufacturing and services industry sectors together account for about half of all WMSD cases.

Risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders include:

  • Fixed or constrained body positions.
  • Continual repetition of movements.
  • Force concentrated on small parts of the body, such as the hand or wrist.
  • A pace of work that does not allow sufficient recovery between movements.

According to the National Library of Medicine, smoking, high body mass index and the presence of co-morbidities have a causal relationship for the development of WMSDs.

Recovery and Return to Work Process

Many treatment options exist for WMSDs, including medications, pain management programs, physical manipulations, exercise, complementary and alternative treatments, psychological counseling, surgery, injections, and self-care.

Recovery from WMSDs may include:

  1. Treating the underlying cause. Common treatments include occupational or physical therapy, splinting, massage, or possibly steroid injections.
  2. Home treatments, including over-the-counter pain medications and stretching exercises.
  3. RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.
  4. Prevention by stretching, avoiding repetitive movements, practicing appropriate lifting techniques.

The return to work process relies on open communication between the employee and the workplace. However, it should also take into account physical, psychological, and financial concerns as well. There is growing research evidence that cognitive-behavioral therapy, when focused on overcoming pain-related challenges at work, can improve RTW rates after musculoskeletal injury, but questions remain about who should provide patient education and counseling, and when these types of services should be introduced. Changes in policies and guidelines may help to make such services more available for further piloting and evaluation.


Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace for their workers. In the workplace, the number and severity of MSDs resulting from physical overexertion, and their associated costs, can be substantially reduced by applying engineering controls, administrative controls, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

  • Engineering controls: These controls refer to the changing of a workstation layout (ergonomic modifications) and to the way materials, parts, and products can be transported. For example, using mechanical assist devices to relieve heavy load lifting and carrying tasks, or using handles or slotted hand holes in packages requiring manual handling. Ergonomic modifications, such as changing employee workstation layout, can also relieve WMSDs. According to the S. Department of Labor, implementing an ergonomic process is effective in reducing the risk of developing MSDs in high-risk industries as diverse as construction, food processing, firefighting, office jobs, healthcare, transportation, and warehousing.
  • Administrative controls: This includes changes in work practices and management policies. Examples include reducing shift length or limiting the amount of overtime allowed, scheduling more frequent breaks, rotating workers through jobs that are physically tiring, etc.
  • Use of PPE: Braces, wrist splints, back belts, and similar devices may offer personal protection against musculoskeletal injury.

The Institute in Medicine estimates the economic burden of WMSDs as measured by compensation costs, lost wages, and lost productivity, are between $45 and $54 billion annually. By educating employees and taking advantage of the latest in ergonomic science and technological advances, companies can have fewer cases of WMSDs and, therefore, a more productive, healthy workforce.