Why is workers’ participation especially critical in the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders?

Meaningful employee participation is emphasized as being critical for an organization’s success. The participation of workers in health and safety activities is likewise regarded as critical for successful prevention of injury and illness. In the prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD) this participation is highlighted with terms like “participatory ergonomics”. Why is the word “participation” so prominent in MSD prevention?

Firstly, participation helps make all prevention activities actually work in practice. Even in relatively straightforward situations, participation will help identify hazards better as well as developing and implementing better controls for the identified hazard. For example, a missing guard on a table saw is an obvious hazard. A basic approach would be to lock the saw out, obtain a guard and have maintenance install it. However, there are many types of guard. To eliminate the hazard, the specific guard must protect the worker AND allow cutting of the specific material. Only some types of guard will match the particular material and cuts required. A guard that does not permit the required cuts at the required production rate increases the likelihood that the control will not work or not be used under production pressures. Participation of workers greatly increases the likelihood that the best guard is installed.  

In addition, although there may be Standard Operation Procedures in place, in reality they may be out of date or may not apply under all situations…for example special orders. Workers are familiar with these variations in standard procedure; it could be during these variations that choice of the right guard is most critical. Lack of worker input makes it more likely that the machine will not permit safe AND productive work under all situations.

Secondly, for MSD prevention, participation is even more important than for other hazards. Workers FEEL the effects of work on their bodies and can give insights into specific aspects and tasks that put larger loads on them. For most activities, workers can sense how hard the job is on their body. Even if musculoskeletal disorders can take a substantial time to develop - such as during computer work - development of discomfort, especially if persistent - is an early sign of MSD development and the potential presence of hazards. Workers therefore can give especially valuable information for MSD hazard identification and risk assessment: arguably more than for other hazards.

Thirdly, the ergonomics approach is focused on both the wellbeing of people at work and the effectiveness of their work. A poor fit of the work to humans is a predictor of reduced performance and increased ill-health and injury at work. Application of the methods and approaches of ergonomics is a key tool in the prevention of MSD. It is the only science and practice that puts the human at the center of the system. Many MSD hazards also contribute to poor product quality. In fact, the addition of the adjective “participatory” to ergonomics is redundant!

For all of these reasons, meaningful participation of workers in the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders at work is very important.