MSDs can sneak up on employees

Office ergonomics training is one critical aspect of an overall musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) prevention program. While other types of injuries, such as sprains and strains, tend be acute — that is, a negative consequence immediately after exposure to the incident — MSDs are more insidious in their development as they tend to result from cumulative exposure to related risk factors.
MSDs are difficult to detect because the symptoms often start off as low-level discomfort or fatigue in the affected body part, and come and go such that the individual may believe the symptoms have resolved. 

Employees may not even recall the previous bout when symptoms reappear, in some cases, months later.  

Without knowledge of the risk factors and the early warning signs and symptoms, employees may not take appropriate action in the early stages of symptom development when these injuries are much easier to resolve. 

Instead, there is a tendency for individuals to wait until the symptoms have progressed to such an extent that medical treatment is sought.  

How training can help
Office ergonomics training provides employees with information on how to properly adjust their workstation furniture and equipment. It is not unusual for ergonomists to find employees have a number of adjustment features available to them yet they have no idea how to perform the adjustments or how to adjust the equipment specifically for themselves.   

Employees also need to understand the interaction of these various pieces with each other and themselves. For example, if an employee likes to use chair armrests and these are adjusted appropriately, the keyboard/mouse surface and armrests will often be at the same height. 

For slighter individuals, the armrests — particularly those that extend forward quite far — may prevent them from pulling in close to the surface. As a result, these individuals will end up reaching to use the keyboard and mouse, increasing the stress on the shoulder, neck and upper back tissues.  

Ergonomics training should also include strategies employees can use to reduce their risk of injury. Short, frequent breaks, stretching and resistance training are all beneficial in reducing the risk of developing musculoskeletal injuries. Providing guidelines around the use of these strategies will help employees maximize the benefits. Stretching, for example, can be detrimental if the employee has an acute injury to the body part being stretched or if muscles are not warm.

Other components 
Furniture, equipment and facility: The training cannot be fully implemented in the workplace if the furniture and equipment lack adequate adjustability and the overall design does not support the tasks, individual needs and team needs specific to the organization.  

Ergonomics education can extend to assisting facilities and technology specialists with information on features and guidelines to incorporate into selection criteria. Again, the furniture and technology need to work together and for the individual. 

For instance, if monitors cannot be positioned appropriately in terms of distance from the individual, height and orientation (landscape versus portrait), the individual may adopt poor posture when viewing them, contributing to the development of symptoms.  

Hazard identification, assessment and control: An office ergonomics education session can assist employees in identifying related hazards at work. But some individuals may need further assessment to determine appropriate control measures. 
It is not uncommon for people receiving training to want to know how to get further assistance when needed.  

Medical management: Individuals who realize they are in the process of developing an MSD or have developed one may need direction on how to report their symptoms and seek assistance. Encouraging early reporting is important and symptoms that are caught early can often be managed by ensuring the workstation is set up appropriately for the individual and he is taking short, frequent breaks to move about and stretch.  

Management support and communication: Unless there is an environment that fosters early reporting from the top down —where employees feel supported in optimizing their work area for productivity and well-being — it is less likely they will follow through on early reporting and using the strategies in the education session.  

Margo Fraser is executive director of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists, based in Toronto. For more information, visit 

This article originally appeared in Canadian HR Reporter, a sister publication of COS.