The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
WM was the principal author of the article. JO participated in the elaboration, content and drafting of the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
WM is currently Co-Chair of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) Technical Committee on Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), responsible for work on behalf of the IEA to develop and field test a toolkit for workplace use in managing risk of musculoskeletal disorders, as an IEA contribution to the World Health Organisation (WHO) network of Collaborating Centres in Occupational Health. La Trobe University’s Centre for Ergonomics & Human Factors is a member of this WHO network, in which capacity WM and JO are responsible for international coordination of WHO network projects promoting MSDs toolkit development and implementation.
JO is program coordinator of postgraduate programs in Ergonomics, Safety and Health at La Trobe University (LTU). She also leads a research program in the area of musculoskeletal disorders based at the Centre for Ergonomics, Safety and Health at LTU. She is currently Secretary of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of Australia.
Exposures to occupational hazards substantially increase workers’ risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and can exacerbate pre-existing disorders. The effects on MSD risk of the physical requirements of work performance are well recognised, but there is now ample evidence that work-related psychosocial hazards can also have substantial effects; further, some hazards may be additive or interactive. This evidence is not reflected in current workplace risk management practices.
Barriers to more effective workplace management of MSD risk include: the widespread belief that risk arises largely or entirely from physical hazard exposures; regulatory and guidance documents targeting MSDs, most of which reflect this belief; risk assessment tools that focus narrowly on subsets of mainly physical hazards and yet generate outputs in the form of MSD risk indicators; and the conventional occupational health and safety (OHS) risk management paradigm, which is ill-suited to manage MSD risk.
It is argued that improved workplace management of MSD risk requires a systems-based management framework and more holistic risk assessment and control procedures that address risk from all types of hazard together rather than in isolation from each other, and that support participation by workers themselves. New MSD risk management tools are needed to meet these requirements.
Further, successful implementation of such changes is likely to require some restructuring of workplace responsibilities for MSD risk management. Line managers and supervisors often play key roles in generating hazards, both physical and psychosocial, so there is a need for their more active participation, along with OHS personnel and workers themselves, in routine risk assessment and control procedures.
MSDs are one of our largest OHS problems, but workplace risk management procedures do not reflect current evidence concerning their work-related causes. Inadequate attention is given to assessing and controlling risk from psychosocial hazards, and the conventional risk management paradigm focuses too narrowly on risk from individual hazards rather than promoting the more holistic approach needed to manage the combined effects of all relevant hazards. Achievement of such changes requires new MSD risk management tools and better integration of the roles of OHS personnel with those of line managers.
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