Work postures are among the riskiest behaviors for developing a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (WMSD).

For workers, WMSDs are more than just a pain in the neck. They can lead to debilitating injury that makes it impossible to work or even perform personal tasks, like buttoning a shirt, without difficulty or pain.

For employers, WMSDs are expensive. OSHA estimates that employers spend up to $20 billion annually in direct costs and up to $100 billion in indirect costs associated with WMSD worker's compensation claims.

With so much at stake it’s important to know what kind of work postures put workers at risk and how to correct them so that injury can be avoided.

Two Key Workplace Postures To Be Aware Of

Two postures in the workplace have been identified as contributing most often to WMSDs. They can be described as extreme stillness and extreme stretching.

Extreme stillness is when a worker maintains the same physical position for a long period of time. It can be a sitting posture or a standing posture. Doing this contracts the muscles, which in turn squeezes blood vessels and restricts blood flow to the working muscles. Cutting off the blood flow robs the muscle of oxygen and can lead to muscle pain, spasm, or cramping.

Extreme stretching happens when the body is positioned at or near the outer reaches of its normal range of motion. This movement compresses and stretches the tendons and nerves, leading to pain and injury.

Both of these postures result in overuse and fatigue of muscles, tendons, and/or nerves. Ultimately, when not properly addressed, they undermine the person’s musculoskeletal system. What starts out as an ache or tenderness can develop into persistent pain, fatigue, and/or physical weakness. Over time, the injury becomes chronic and requires more and more intense treatment—it can even lead to surgery. In the most extreme cases, WMSDs disable the person from being able to do work and personal tasks.

Stillness Postures That Put Workers At Risk Of WMSDs

When observing workers’ posture for risk of developing WMSDs be on the lookout for:

Practicing good posture trains the body to stand, walk, sit, and lie with the least strain on supporting muscles and ligaments. Moving your body throughout the day has both physical and mental benefits.

Stretching Postures That Put Workers At Risk Of WMSDs

Sometimes it’s the workstation setup that encourages workers to adopt postures that can lead to WMSDs.

When observing workers, look to change setups that encourage the worker to:

  • Bend at the torso to do low work

  • Reach above the shoulder again and again

  • Reach behind the body in a way that extends the arm and/or requires twisting at the waist

  • Rotate the wrists or arms repeatedly, such as turning a knob or screwdriver

  • Bending the wrist to an extreme in any direction

  • Reach out far from the body

While the body can normally tolerate making these long stretches occasionally, doing them repeatedly or for long periods of time can lead to injury.

What You Can Do To Help Workers Avoid WMSDs

There are a number of things you can do to encourage workers to adopt work postures that help them avoid WMSDs.

Encourage Proper Posture

Educate your workers on how to stand and sit properly so that they can avoid the stresses and strains that lead to WMSDs. Also, make sure that workstations are adjustable and ergonomically sound, so that they can fit the posture of every worker who uses them.

Make Needed Changes To Workstation Setups

When the way a workstation is set up encourages or requires workers to adopt poor posture, be still for long periods of time, and/or overextend their limbs to reach, that setup must be changed. Any changes need to make the workstation ergonomically sound for all the workers using the station. (Learn more in 5 Tips for Creating Ergonomic Workstations for Employees).

Provide Proper Work Tools

Whether it’s adjustable headsets, computer monitor arms, or power tools with power grips, it’s important that workers have tools that support proper posture and don’t encourage risky movements and practices. (Learn more in 10 Important Ergonomic Aids for Workers).

Institute Proper Rest And Recovery Practices

Fatigue can be overlooked as a cause of WMSDs. But it’s important that workers take regular, physical rest breaks from their work tasks. It’s not enough to stop doing the task at hand — workers should get up and move their bodies for a few minutes. This is true for every worker, from the delivery truck driver to the manager. Consider instituting work rules that build in break times and encourage physical movement.

WMSDs Can Be Avoided

With the proper attention and intervention, WMSDs can be largely avoided. By investing time and resources to identify and address the practices that put your workers at risk, you’ll reap the benefits of an injury-free workplace.