Work and MSD Hazards

We all suffer occasional pain and discomfort, but work shouldn’t hurt.


There is strong and consistent evidence that physical factors in the workplace and how work is organized can greatly increase a person’s chance of developing an MSD. Work can also aggravate an existing MSD injury and hinder the return to work process. 


Despite this evidence, it is common to ignore the strong contribution of the workplace and instead, blame workers’ low back or shoulder pain on individual factors such as “gardening”, “susceptibility” or “genetics”. This argument does not take away from the independent contribution of work to the development and worsening of MSD symptoms


This independent and substantial contribution of work to the development of MSD can be eliminated or reduced by making changes to the workplace.


People differ in how they respond to MSD hazards, and how intense the hazard is before they have problems. This is the same for other occupational hazards like noise or dust. We are all different. Some people are taller, some are heavier, some are stronger, and some are older.


A tall worker may have to bend over to work at a regular-height table. You can’t change the height of the worker, but the organization could fix this hazard with an adjustable-height work surface.


Fit the work to the worker! Do not make the worker fit the work. This is the central idea of ergonomics.

Workplace MSD hazards

High Force 

Examples of force include the force exerted on a box during lifting or the grip force to hold a hand tool. If the force exerted is high, the muscle around the joints must contract forcefully and are likely to fatigue. The high forces, over time, can injure nerves or other tissues.

Awkward Posture 

Posture is the position of the body and its joints – an elbow is bent (flexed) or straight (extended). Some positions of a joint are stronger and healthier than others. These are sometimes called neutral postures. An awkward posture is one where the joint is weaker or more likely to fatigue or become injured. These awkward postures, over time, can lead to fatigue and increased risk of developing an MSD.

High Repetition

Repetition describes how the postures and forces vary over time. Does the person spend a long time bent over (a static posture), or are they frequently bending over then standing up (repetitive work)? Closely related concepts include recovery (does the body have sufficient recovery time) and duty cycle (the proportion of time that the body is working). These factors are strongly influenced by Work Organization and the workplace.


A worker may be exposed to vibration in two main ways:

  • At the hands, for example by a vibrating hand tool such as a drill. This is called Hand Arm Vibration (HAV)
  • Through the feet if standing, or through the buttocks if sitting. This is called Whole Body Vibration (WBV)

Local Contact Stress 

A tool that digs into a worker’s hand or the pressure on the kneecap when kneeling both create local contact stresses. These contact stresses can, over time, injure the skin or cause blisters or injure the muscle, ligament or bone underneath the skin.  


There is some evidence that working in cold temperatures is associated with an increased risk of developing MSD. Different mechanisms have been proposed. However, working in the cold often requires a worker to wear a glove and gloves can greatly increase the effort required to grip objects.

MSD hazards in the workplace can be identified using multiple approaches:

  1. Investigation of work tasks triggered by a reported MSD
  2. Review of the patterns of reported MSD
  3. Information from workplace inspections
  4. Reports of hazards by workers and other stakeholders


How to identify/recognize hazards

A note on MSD and workplace psychosocial hazards

The word “psychosocial” is often used when talking about causes of MSD. It can be confusing.  It is useful to separate “workplace psychosocial” factors from “individual psychosocial” factors.

  • Workplace psychosocial factors refer to the perceptions of the work environment that have an emotional meaning for workers and managers. Examples include overload or lack of control.

  • Individual psychosocial factors refer to individual characteristics, such as psychological distress.

The work organization determines to a large extent the type and degree of psychosocial work factors experienced by workers. Different work organizations will create different psychosocial workplace factors. Electronic performance monitoring is an example of a work organizational factor that leads to negative psychosocial work factors. Workplace psychosocial factors are important for workers’ health in general, mental health, as well as MSD.

With this in mind, multiple studies show a consistent pattern of workplace psychosocial factors that are also MSD hazards. Psychosocial factors include a mix of jobs, work environments and organizational characteristics. They include factors such as low job control, low decision latitude, conflicting job demands, or low supervisor support. On the positive side, these hazards are generated by the organization and therefore can be changed by the organization.




MSD prevention site factsheet

What's New? 


We are working to continuously develop the MSD Prevention Guideline. Watch for new content, including more resources and case studies.



MSD prevention site factsheet



Download the factsheet introducing the MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario website.


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Case Studies 


Read success stories and case studies about preventing MSD. These stories may apply to your workplace and help you make the right decision.



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Frequently asked questions. There are lots of myths about preventing MSD at work. With good information and actions, MSD can be prevented.




WSIB's Health and Safety Excellence Program


Why join?


Keeping your team safe and healthy at work is good for business. WSIB's Health and Safety Excellence program provides a clear roadmap to improve safety in your workplace, whether you're just getting started or want to improve systems and processes you already have in place.


No matter how large or small your business is, the Health and Safety Excellence program can help. Connect with a WSIB-approved provider who can help you address your business’s unique health and safety challenges – and you can earn rebates for the work you do to improve your workplace health and safety. 


Check out the Health and Safety Excellence Program website for more information on the program and the benefits.



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DISCLAIMER: CRE-MSD receives funding through a grant provided by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.

Workplace Solutions to Back Pain, Shoulder Tendinitis, Tennis Elbow & Other Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD):
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