I recently attended the International Ergonomics Association Congress (luckily in Melbourne). It was an awesome event and got me thinking (or at least revisiting) lots of interesting topics surrounding ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). I will be writing about a few of these topics in coming posts, but first up I would like to look at what the evidence is saying about MSDs – what works and what doesn’t.


What are MSDs?

Having a background as a Physio, musculoskeletal disorders are what I deal with. Originally in my career the aim was to try and fix them – now the aim is to stop them from happening in the first place. So what actually are they? Safe Work Australia have defined MSDs as…

“an injury to, or a disease of, the musculoskeletal system, whether occurring suddenly or over time. It does not include an injury caused by crushing, entrapment (such as fractures and dislocations) or cutting resulting from the mechanical operation of plant.”

So in a workplace context we are talking about back injuries, shoulder and arm injuries, both sudden and slow onset among others. These are easily the most common injuries occurring in workplaces according to almost any source you choose to site. Certain they account for most workers compensation claims in Queensland.


What are the current approaches to preventing MSD’s?

One of the major focuses of manual handling training or MSD prevention these days is what we call participatory ergonomics. It’s quite the mouthful, but evidence is actually telling us that these programs are the most effective way of managing ergonomic and manual handling risk – and ultimately reducing musculoskeletal discomfort and therefore injury.

What is Participatory Ergonomics?

Participatory Ergonomics (PE) is as it sounds – essentially getting workers more involved in managing their risk. PE programs typically involve some type of training package to help workers understand the risk more, which is then translated into workers conducting risk assessments on hazardous manual tasks and ultimately suggesting their own ideas for ways to improve.

From a consultants point of view there is value in this as often workers do come up with some very innovative ideas as to how to reduce their manual tasks risk. Another benefit of these programs is that workers are much more likely to be involved and compliant with ideas and approaches that they have suggested themselves.


What does a PE program look like?

Participative ergonomic programs are more than just asking workers what they think might work. For the program to be effective there needs to be a comprehensive approach to manual task risk management. A well thought out and considered approach will have the following elements:

  1. Management commitment – reasonable controls need to be implemented and management needs to become involved in the solutions. If the answer to all worker suggestions is “no”, the program is likely to fail.
  2. Site champion – someone to drive the process to ensure that is does not fall down.
  3. Suitable time for work teams to conduct the risk assessments
  4. Performance targets and indicators
  5. A suitable evaluation program

PE is a step above a typical manual tasks training package, however is likely to be the most effective way to reducing injuries long term.