Workers Health & Safety Centre

MSD prevention should consider role of gender and psychosocial hazards too

Worker attending a virtual RSI day event
Workplaces need to examine how work is organized and assigned by gender if they want to understand and address the real root causes of musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs).

Workplace representatives, researchers and regulators too have come to understand that work-related MSDs are influenced by a wide range of factors. Research evidence tells us that the psychosocial work environment as well as gender can play a role in the development of MSDs. If we are ever to reduce, if not eliminate, the pain and suffering associated with work-related MSDs, much bolder workplace interventions are needed.

Research and regulation must address all workplace factors

Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs), also known as musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs), still account for one-third of all lost-time injuries allowed by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Many more are never reported. To focus attention on these crippling injuries, health and safety advocates across Ontario and around the world observe the last day of February as International RSI Awareness Day. Again this year, the Day was a chance to learn more about these disabling injuries but served as a reminder that effective prevention efforts need more muscle.
These issues were top of mind at a virtual RSI Day event hosted by Manitoba Federation of Labour’s Occupational Health Centre with support from SAFE Work Manitoba. It continues a discussion begun at last year’s event.  
Jamie Hall, Chief Operating Officer at SAFE Work Manitoba, reported that while MSDs have declined in recent years, they still make up one-third of all injuries in Manitoba as well. Prevention efforts are working he says, but admits more can be done. In aid of this, Manitoba has launched a second multi-year strategy to better understand and address how psychological health and safety in the workplace impacts workers’ physical and mental health.

Contributing to this discussion, Dwayne Van Eerd and Heather Johnston, scientists with the Institute for Work and Health, offered an interactive presentation exploring common work-related risk factors for both musculoskeletal and psychological injury. Why is this important? In addressing common risk factors such as frequency and duration, common prevention measures might reduce the risk of both types of injury. Taking this discussion into virtual breakout rooms with the aid of interactive software, event participants explored these risk factors, how and if they overlap and their familiarity with available prevention tools.

Fortunately, decades of research into MSD informs much of what we know about injuries—like MSDs, they are hard to manage, affect people differently and cause injuries that are often invisible. We know force, posture, vibration and repetition can contribute to MSDs, but can trauma, frequency and duration cause psychological injuries? Consider a retail checkout clerk whose job tasks are characterized by frequency and repetition, both known MSD risk factors. Can exposure to trauma or repeated harassment on the job increase the risk of work-related psychological injury too?

Van Eerd and Johnston are conducting a scoping review of the literature on risk factors for both types of injuries and intend to develop a tool to assess and triage the most important risk factors focusing on those which may impact and lessen both physical and mental injuries. 

Gender: How it can impact MSD development and prevention

Elsewhere, unique partnerships are allowing researchers like Karen Messing to delve more deeply into the root causes of work-related MSDs where workers’ experiences are central. The professor emerita of ergonomics at the Université du Québec à Montréal reported on her research which often focuses on women’s occupational health and safety. Not only do workplaces segregate work and tasks based on gender but if you are to consider MSDs from a gender lens says Messing, “Research and occupational health and safety practices also need to acknowledge biological differences between men and women.”

Differences in body mass, reproductive functions and responses to fatigue can impact the risk of injury when workplaces don’t recognize and design work for these differences. In her presentation, which draws from her recently published book, Bent out of Shape, Messing offered compelling examples of how these differences play out in the workplace:
  • Women have broader hip breadth than men. Female telecommunications technicians reported that standard issue toolbelts dug into their hips causing pain and discomfort.
  • Women have lower elbow height than men. Research on a predominantly male workforce where workers tighten bolts on a machine found that female workers had less grip strength, were 40 per cent slower and developed more shoulder injuries. When ergonomists designed a longer wrench for female workers their productivity improved and they suffered less shoulder pain.

Messing notes these findings reflect other research which finds that women in non-traditional work have two to three times more injuries where jobs have not been adapted. Ergonomics has the power to transform working conditions says Messing but only if it meets the needs of all workers including the most vulnerable who are often segregated at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy due to gender or race. To event participants, Messing issued this challenge: “Let’s strive to make work fairer and safer because safe work is both fair and more equitable.”

Preventing physical and mental injuries

Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) offers training and support to workplaces wanting to prevent all forms of work-related injury and illness. Begin with our Ergonomic Resources and insist on quality training. Check out our Ergonomics and Mental Health at Work training programs.

Register for one or more of these courses offered in our virtual classrooms.

WHSC related articles:
Preventing musculoskeletal disorders: Are new technologies the answer?
Chronic back pain reduced by work autonomy and social support: study
Workplace interventions key to worker mental well-being, study finds

Other MSD Prevention Resources
Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers resources on MSD preventionWorkplace Ergonomics and Workplace Mental Health
Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders
MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario
Institute for Work & Health resources on MSD PreventionParticipatory Ergonomics and more. Check out their topics page.

WHSC offers a full roster of training in virtual classrooms including JHSC Certification. We continue to schedule in-person Working at Heights and Working at Heights Refresher training too in COVID-safe spaces which comply with public health guidelines.

Don’t see what you need? Beyond the scheduled classes listed above, and where participant numbers warrant, we can work with you to coordinate almost any of our training courses for all workers, workplace representatives and supervisors.
Need more information still?
Call a WHSC training services representative in your area.
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