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Spring 2001 Vol. 1 No. 1

Table of Contents

ŠArtville Pain on the Job

What Science Has to Say About the Relationship Between the Workplace and Health Problems

For lots of Americans, work literally brings pain. Lower backache, tendinitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome are among the many ailments that afflict about 1 million workers each year, costing the nation between $45 billion and $54 billion in compensation expenditures and decreased productivity.

Musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, is the medical term that refers to these health problems, which affect muscles, nerves, spinal disks, joints, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. And scientific evidence shows that such health effects can indeed be attributed to particular jobs and working conditions, says a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

MSDs are a concern among many types of workers -- from long-haul truck drivers to nurses who often have to lift, turn, and physically support their patients. There is a strong relationship between back disorders and jobs where people manually lift materials, frequently bend and twist their bodies, or experience whole-body vibration from motor vehicles, the report says. For shoulder, arm, and hand disorders, risk factors include repetition, force, and vibration.

Workers' individual characteristics -- such as gender and age -- as well as stressful, fast-paced job settings can make employees more vulnerable to MSDs, noted the panel that wrote the report. And risks may be compounded if workers feel powerless in such environments.

But properly implemented strategies to reduce the incidence, severity, and consequences of work-related musculoskeletal disorders can be effective. Successful programs can be found in a variety of workplaces, and take into account procedures and characteristics specific to the organization. Furthermore, they usually involve a high level of commitment from employers and employees, the panel said.

To do a better job of tracking the disorders nationwide, federal agencies should create a broad surveillance system to more accurately quantify the problems and pinpoint risk factors both on and off the job, the panel said. In addition, they should expand the scope of research activities in this area. A clearer understanding of the risk factors could help policy-makers and employers alike in determining whether and how to enact measures addressing MSDs in the work environment.   -- Vanee Vines

Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace: Low Back and Upper Extremities. Panel on Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace, Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education and Institute of Medicine (2001, approx. 450 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07284-0; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The panel was chaired by Jeremiah A. Barondess, president, New York Academy of Medicine, New York City. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences