Work-Related Disorders Are Real, Says Report of National Committee Co-Chaired By UB Professor

Release Date: October 5, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council steering committee, co-chaired by a University at Buffalo professor, has concluded that there is good evidence that musculoskeletal disorders are, in fact, caused by the physical forces people put on their bodies, including those encountered at work.

The committee's report, "Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders: A Review of the Evidence" was delivered to Capitol Hill last week and is available at (search for musculoskeletal).

"The question posed to our steering committee was, 'Do we have a scientific basis for saying that these disorders are, indeed, caused by what you do to your body?'" said Colin Drury, Ph.D., professor of industrial engineering at UB and co-chair of the committee.

"Our report says that you cannot dismiss musculoskeletal disorders as being all in the mind," he said.

The steering committee was convened in August at the request of the National Institutes of Health to examine the current research base on work-related disorders, such as repetitive stress injuries to the back and upper limbs.

The purpose of its charge was to review and comment on the quality of the science in the field that can then be used in the policy debate.

Some experts and legislators have stated that musculoskeletal disorders are not related to stressors experienced at work with some going so far as to say that such disorders are not legitimate physical complaints at all.

The committee found a strong biological connection between such disorders and a high level of exposure to physical stressors in the workplace.

"When we looked at the data, we found that people who are exposed to high levels of physical forces at work are more likely to experience these disorders," said Drury. "Also, if your

job is one that has one of the hallmarks of stress, such as low social support and high demand, you also are more likely to experience them."

The report states that specific interventions are effective in reducing the rate of such disorders for individuals, but cautions that such interventions must be individually tailored.

While work exposure is a key factor in such disorders, Drury added that the committee found that it is not the only one.

Other factors include how one's job is organized, such as how much latitude an individual has in determining what task he or she will do next.

"It is not just the biomechanics that can cause these disorders," said Drury, "but that plus the whole social milieu you live in."

In addition, he said, individuals may simply have more or less tolerance to tissue damage based on factors such as age and the presence of diseases like arthritis.

"When we looked at the relative magnitude of the physical effects as well as organizational and individual differences, we found that none of them alone will predict who is susceptible to such disorders and who is not," he said. The committee found that the biological correlation is strongest when forces are the greatest, and weakest with low-level stress, such as repetitive stress injuries experienced by computer-users.

"With disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, the evidence is there, but there isn't the same degree of agreement," he said.

The report cited estimated costs associated with absences and compensation claims related to these disorders ranging from $13-20 billion annually.

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