Research Review: Is physical capacity associated with the occurrence of musculoskeletal symptoms among office workers?

Injury occurs when the demands of a job exceed the capacity of a worker. Primarily, the capacity of a worker is focused on the physical strength that they possess – how much muscle force can be generated by the muscles of the lower back, shoulder, etc. However, other factors inherent to the job can also reduce the worker’s physical capacity – including the mental capacity of the worker. In assessing the ergonomics of a workplace, both the mental, and the physical demands must be assessed to determine the true risk of injury that a job inherently has.

Demanding work is typically associated with blue-collar positions – things like construction or manufacturing. However, injuries still do occur in white-collar office jobs – as evidenced by the prevalence of lower back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome in these workers. A recent paper published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health by Cabral and colleagues aimed to look at the different factors for musculoskeletal disorder symptoms, while controlling for the capacity of the worker, the presence of physical risk factors, and the influence of job stress and mental demands. 

In this study, the researchers examined a group of 75 office workers. They recorded the worker’s strength, endurance, and flexibility, for their back, shoulder, and neck. Additionally, the researchers assessed the physical demands of these worker’s offices by conducting an analysis using the Rapid Office Strain Assessment. Finally, the mental demands of the jobs were assessed using the Job Stress Scale, and other relevant physical factors such as smoking and physical activity were accounted for. 

Summary of findings from Cabral et al., 2019

Not surprisingly, the worker’s physical capacity was linked with the presence of musculoskeletal discomfort. However, when controlling for the remaining factors, the relationship between discomfort and the impacting factors increased greatly. 

Clinically, office workers with greater shoulder abduction strength were less likely to have neck MSD symptoms, and those with greater back and leg flexibility were less likely to report lower back symptoms. The researchers point out, targeting shoulder abduction and back flexibility  should be the focus of in office strength training and flexibility programs. While these programs could significantly impact worker strength and flexibility, pathways between workplace stretching and mental wellbeing have also been established. 

Having the ability to assess the demands of the office at any time – including over multiple offices – is very beneficial in understanding the demand component of this injury relationship. Having access to ROSA online allows for the worker to do an assessment in their home office, workplace, and any of the other places they may find themselves working. Pairing the knowledge of the office ergonomics along with the capacity of the worker is a great way to keep workers healthy and productive.

So, what does this research mean for your workforce? While it is important to understand the risk factors inherent to the jobs – going out and buying all new equipment will only get you so far. The use of post-offer of employment testing, even for office workers, could identify possible strength deficits, allowing you to implement strength and flexibility programs for your workers before they report MSD symptoms. While the balance between capacity and demand is one that can be challenging at times, the benefits of finding that sweet spot are huge.

References

Cabral, A. M., Moreira, R. de F. C., de Barros, F. C., & Sato, T. de O. (2019). Is physical capacity associated with the occurrence of musculoskeletal symptoms among office workers? A cross-sectional study. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health.

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