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Ergonomics: Background

Recognition of Hazards

Ergonomics is the science of fitting the jobs to the people who work in them. The goal of an ergonomics program is to reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) developed by workers when a major part of their jobs involve reaching, bending over, lifting heavy objects, using continuous force, working with vibrating equipment and doing repetitive motions.

How serious a problem are MSDs?

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) result when there is a mismatch between the physical capacity of workers and the physical demands of their jobs. Each year 1.8 million workers in the United States report work-related MSDs such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and back injuries. About 600,000 MSDs are serious enough to result in workers having to take time off work to recover. The solution to these injuries lies with ergonomics, the science of fitting the job to the worker. OSHA's final ergonomics program standard will significantly reduce the number and severity of  MSDs caused by exposure to risk factors in the workplace.

What can be done to prevent MSDs?

Employers can prevent MSD hazards by properly designing the job or workstation and selecting the appropriate tools or equipment for that job. 

It is also important that work tools and equipment be ergonomically designed. Most hand tools are designed for only occasional use, not for repetitive use over prolonged periods. 

Maintenance of tools and equipment also is essential in preventing or reducing ergonomic hazards. Keep tools sharp and maintain them according to the manufacturer's specifications. Proper maintenance also can help reduce vibration resulting from prolonged equipment operation.

What is OSHA doing to address MSDs?

OSHA has issued an ergonomics standard to reduce MSDs developed by workers whose jobs involve repetitive motions, force, awkward postures, contact stress and vibration. The principle behind ergnomics is that fitting the job to the worker through adjusting a workstation, rotating between jobs or using mechanical assists, MSDs can be reduced and ultimately eliminated.

OSHA's standard requires employers to respond to employee reports of work-related MSDs or signs and symptoms of MSDs that last seven days after you report them. If your employer determines that your MSD, or MSD signs or symptoms, can be connected to your job, your employer must provide you with an opportunity to contact a health care professional and receive work restrictions, if necessary. Your wages and benefits must be protected for a period of time while on light duty or temporarily off work to recover. Your employer must analyze the job and if MSD hazards are found, must take steps to reduce those hazards.

What components should an ergonomic program include?

The rule requires employers to inform workers about common MSDs, MSD signs and symptoms, and the importance of early reporting. When a worker reports signs or symptoms of an MSD, the employer must determine whether the injury meets the definition of an MSD Incident--a work-related MSD that requires medical treatment beyond first aid, assignment to a light duty job or temporary removal from work to recover, or work-related MSD signs or MSD symptoms that last for seven or more consecutive days.

If it is an MSD Incident, the employer must check the job, using a Basic Screening Tool to determine whether the job exposes the worker to risk factors that could trigger MSD problems. The rule provides a Basic Screening Tool that identifies risk factors that could lead to MSD hazards. If the risk factors on the job meet the levels of exposure in the Basic Screening Tool, then the job will have met the Action Trigger.

If the job meets the Action Trigger, the employer must implement the following program elements:

  • Management Leadership and Employee Participation
  • Job Hazard Analysis and Control
  • Training
  • MSD Management
  • Work Restriction Protection
  • Program Evaluation
  • Recordkeeping
  • Dates

The following items were developed or posted by OSHA in an attempt to provide technical assistance only on ergonomic-related issues or workplace situations. They were developed prior to the promulgation of OSHA’s Final Rule on Ergonomics Programs (29 CFR 1910.900, November 14, 2000), and therefore do not necessarily reflect the provisions set forth in it. They are presented here solely to serve as a source of technical guidance and information, and any mention of, or links to, outside resources shall not be construed as endorsement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders: A Review of the Evidence. National Academy of Sciences (1998).

Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace: Low Back and Upper Extremities. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2001).

Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders: Report, Workshop Summary, and Workshop Papers. National Research Council (1999).

Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1997, July).

Private Sector Ergonomics Programs Yield Positive Results. GAO HEHS-97-163 Report (1997, August).

Ergonomics - Statistics (1995)

Revision Date: 25 January 2001


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