Promoting ergonomics without defining MSDs

The National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics completed its two-year term with recommendations and these statements about ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs):

Ergonomics is a noun, not an adjective. It is recommended that it be used as such in formal documents. Hazards exist in the form of poorly designed work practices and/or workplaces. Ergonomics is a process that can be used beneficially to address job and workplace design — the human interface with the work system. Improved safety characteristics occur in concert with productivity improvements. Once workers no longer need to devote maximum energy to overcoming the demands of their work practices and/or workplaces, they can devote those same energies to productivity and quality aspects of their jobs.

The pursuit of a single definition of MSDs has not reached consensus. The various/numerous MSD definitions cover a host of conditions limited only by those doing the defining, none of which directly helps to reduce the number of such disorders. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration should continue the development of guidelines independent of any final definition of MSDs. MSDs are a consequence of exposures to risk factors of a multifactorial nature. Although the exact cause of a specific MSD may not be known, and the precise effectiveness of an intervention may not be predictable, the objective of ergonomics is to reduce, to a practical minimum, the demands (e.g., physiological, cognitive, behavioral) of doing the work by controlling these exposures. To this end, a number of tools and guidelines may be useful.

Ergonomics should be included in comprehensive occupational safety and health programs. Ergonomics should be integrated into business processes in the same way as job safety analysis, personal protective equipment, hazard assessments, process hazard analysis, and similar occupational safety and health tools.

It must be recognized that there are nonoccupational components (e.g., general health, nonwork, leisure, play, and physical daily living activities) that also contribute to the development and occurrence of MSDs. To reach outside the work arena, these components are best addressed by educating the work force concerning such nonwork hazards.