Physical Stress at Work

NOTE: This UE Steward has not been updated since it was first published over a decade ago. Some information may no longer be accurate.

Physical Stress at Work


  • 1.8 million U.S. workers experience injuries related to overexertion or repetitive motion each year.
  • These injuries (often called Musculoskeletal Disorders [MSDs]) are often the easiest to prevent - but most non-union employers often prefer to "blame the worker" for their injuries, rather than "fixing the job" to prevent the injuries from occurring.
  • Here's a primer on MSDs - and how union stewards can take action to protect workers who are at risk ...

Here are some facts to think about while you read this UE Steward:

  • In 1979 the average worker in the US worked 1,845 hours.
  • By 2000 the average worker in the US worked 1,877 hours, an increase of 32 hours per year.
  • In 1979 the average worker in Japan worked 2,126 hours.
  • By 2000 the average worker in Japan worked 1,840 hours, a decrease of 286 hours.
  • In Germany the average for 1979 was 1,969 hours and by 2000 it dropped 489 hours to an average of 1,480 hours per year.

What Should
A UE Steward do?

UE Stewards don't have to wait for an OSHA standard to act.

When an injury occurs, the company's first inclination is to blame the worker. These types of injuries are caused by problems in the job design and exposure to ergonomic risk factors, NOT workers, and it is the job design that needs to be corrected.

If the contract has a health and safety clause then this can be used to grieve unsafe conditions. If there is an area where workers are developing or are being treated for MSDs then the union should go into action. A grievance can also be filed on the grounds that OSHA requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

  1. Identify the problem area.
  2. Identify the problem jobs.
  3. Gather data on what types of injuries have been occurring, carpal tunnel, back strain, tendonitis etc. The company has to allow the union access to accident reports.
  4. Hold a meeting with the workers to get their input into what causes the strain or problem. See if the workers have ideas on what can be done to fix the problem. Maybe rubber mats are needed so workers don't have to stand on concrete floors, thus causing back problems. Workers who have to sit may need to be able to get up and stretch without being hassled by the boss.
  5. Check out the section of the OSHA web site ( that deals with Ergonomics. It has some information on ways to fix problems. Easy solutions are padding for the handles of tools, which can reduce vibrations or damage caused by applying force to the tool. There are many pamphlets out about how to adjust seats and computer screens to lessen back, neck and wrist strain.
  6. Find out if there is a COSH Group (Committee on Occupational Safety and Health) in your area. They have access to experts or more literature on how to correct problems that cause MSDs.
  7. And finally, don't accept from the employer the idea that "injuries are part of the job." They're not.

In fact in just about every industrialized country in the world, except for the United States, workers are working fewer hours.

Here's some other interesting facts. In Portugal and Spain the legally mandated yearly vacation is 30 days per year. In Austria, Finland, Sweden, and France 25 days per year are required by law. Of course in the United States, employers are not required by law to offer any vacations at all.

All of the above statistics were taken from "The State of Working America 2002/2003," compiled by the Economic Policy Institute.

Each year 1.8 million workers experience injuries related to overexertion or repetitive motion, and 600,000 are injured severely enough to require time off work. These types of injuries are called "Musculoskeletal Disorders" (MSDs).

As workers work longer hours and the intensity of work increases, the number of MSDs have increased. Between 1987 and 1995 the number of repetitive motion disorders quadrupled, and by 1995, represented 60 percent of all reported industrial illnesses.

In 1999, after 10 years of study, OSHA proposed an ergonomics standard which would help protect workers from musculoskeletal disorders. OSHA calculated that an ergonomic protection standard would save businesses about $100 billion annually in lower workers' compensation claims and lost work time.

But business interests fought against any ergonomic protection, and once George W. Bush took office, the standard which had gone into effect in November of 2000 was quickly repealed. George Bush appointed Eugene Scalia, the chief lobbyist against the ergonomics standard to be OSHA's Acting Solicitor of Labor. According to Eugene Scalia, OSHA's General Duty Clause is sufficient to mandate a safe workplace and the best way to deal with a musculoskeletal disorder is, as he put it, "coping - we bear up under the discomfort and carry on with our work."

What are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)?

MSDs are injuries and disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. They do not include injuries resulting from slips, trips, falls or similar accidents. Examples of MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, sciatica, herniated disc and low back pain. Some of these types of injuries are called Repetitive Strain Disorders (RSDs) because they are mainly caused by repetitive motions. Workers who do the same motion for eight hours a days are very susceptible to RSDs, with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis being the most common injuries.

What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker. When there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can result. For example, workers who must repeat the same motion throughout their workday, who must do their work in an awkward position, who must use a great deal of force to perform their jobs, who must repeatedly lift heavy objects or who face a combination of these risk factors are most likely to develop MSDs.

How serious a problem are work-related MSDs?

Work-related MSDs are the most prevalent, most expensive and most preventable workplace injuries in the country.

Work-related MSDs account for more than 1/3 of all occupational injuries and illnesses that are serious enough to result in days away from work.

More than 600,000 employees suffer lost-workday MSDs each year.

These injuries cost business $15 billion in workers' compensation costs each year. Total direct costs, including lost time at work, may run as high as $100 billion.

What causes work-related MSDs?

Work-related MSDs occur where there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker. Prolonged exposure to ergonomic risk factors, particularly in combination or at high levels, is likely to cause or contribute to an MSD or aggravate the severity of a pre-existing MSD. The longer and more often the exposure to ergonomic risk factors, the longer the time needed to recover from the exposure to ergonomic risk factors.

The following are factors which have been found to increase the risk of an MSD:

  • Force – Having to turn levers, wheels, tighten bolts, push carts, anything that a worker has to use sudden force to make happen. Continually having to exert the same kind of force can cause damage to the body.
  • Repetition – Using the same motions to do the same thing, hour after hour, can cause damage. The muscles, nerves and tendons never get a chance to relax and therefore damage occurs.
  • Awkward postures – Leaning to reach work, standing on tiptoes, twisting your body to do work can cause muscles, tendons, nerves to be harmed.
  • Static postures – Having to maintain the same posture for hours on end can also cause damage to the body. Sitting and typing causes strain on the back, neck, hands and arms.
  • Vibration – Using tools that vibrate causes damage to nerves and muscles. This doesn't have to be vibration like a jack hammer causes; just continuous vibration of a much lesser degree can cause damage.
  • Cold temperatures – Over a period of time this can also cause damage, especially when combined with the other risk factors listed above. The largest number of workers affected by cold are those in the meat packing industry.

These items are the main causes of MSDs and when they occur in combinations with each other, the chance for injury is greater.

Women suffer high rates of work-related MSDs because of the types of jobs in which they often work-not because their bodies are more vulnerable to MSDs. A large number of women work in jobs associated with high levels of repetitive motions, heavy lifting, awkward postures, and other physical work activities causing work-related MSDs, such as lifting patients in nursing homes, sewing clothing and other apparel, or using a keyboard.

What are solutions to eliminate or reduce MSDs and related costs?

MSDs are often very easy to prevent. Adding a book under a monitor, or padding a tool handle are typical of the fixes used in ergonomics programs. Other ergonomic interventions may include:

  • Adjusting the height of working surfaces to reduce long reaches and awkward postures.
  • Putting work supplies and equipment within comfortable reach.
  • Providing the right tool for the job and the right tool handle for the worker.
  • Varying tasks for workers (e.g., job rotation).
  • Encouraging short authorized rest breaks.
  • Reducing the weight and size of items workers must lift.
  • Providing mechanical lifting equipment.
  • Using telephone headsets.
  • Providing ergonomic chairs or stools.
  • Supplying anti-fatigue floor mats.

In developing the Ergonomics Program, OSHA faced opposition from business organizations and their friends in Congress. The proposed regulations, while describing the problem and mandating it be fixed, did not set limits that could be measured. That is, they didn't say a worker can lift only x number of pounds, x times a day. The proposal rather said if workers are being hurt, as measured by workers missing work or going to the doctor, and the injury was caused by actions that were regular to the employee's job, then there must be a problem and the employer should fix it. With or without an OSHA standard, that should be our standard.

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