Musculoskeletal Health Program: Description

A Hispanic construction worker smiles with satisfaction

Program Description

The mission of the NIOSH Musculoskeletal Health Cross-Sector Program’s Program mission is to reduce the burden of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) through a focused program of research and prevention that protects workers from MSDs, helps management mitigate related risks and liabilities, and helps practitioners improve the efficacy of workplace interventions.

NIOSH researchers involved with musculoskeletal health are experts on ergonomics; i.e. the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population. This means they assess physical and social components of work environments (such as conveyer belt height and lunch break routines, respectively) and come up with ways to modify these environments that improve the health and safety of workers; in this case by reducing the incidence rate and severity of work-related MSDs.

High risk occupations for MSDs:
  • Transit and intercity bus drivers
  • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics
  • Firefighters
  • Registered nurses
  • Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses
  • Nursing assistants
  • Highway maintenance workers
  • Reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks
  • Telecommunication equipment installers and repairers, except line installers
  • Laborers and freight, stock, and material handlers

MSDs are most often caused by overexertion and can affect a worker’s ability to perform many job-related tasks, such as lifting, pulling, pushing, maintaining a natural posture, withstanding cold temperature, and withstanding torque reactions and vibrations from machinery and tools. Members of the Program recognize the growing need for affordable interventions that promote musculoskeletal health in the workplace.  The Program collaborates with the NIOSH Center for Workers’ Compensation Studies (CWCS) on identifying industries with high risk for musculoskeletal disorders and determining effective interventions for reducing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders. In addition, the Program collaborates with the NIOSH Center for Occupational Robotics Research (CORR) and the NIOSH Center for Direct Reading and Sensor Technologies (NCDRST) on providing assistance in making industry standards and guidelines.

High-risk industries for MSDs include:

  • Agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • Transportation and Warehousing
  • Construction
  • Healthcare and social assistance
  • Manufacturing
  • Mining
  • Services
  • Wholesale and retail trade

In 2017, top three occupations that had the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders were bus drivers, emergency responders, and nurses. Specifically, transit and intercity bus drivers had the highest incidence rates (206 per 10,000 full-time workers) of musculoskeletal disorders in 2017, followed by the emergency medical technicians, paramedics, firefighters, nursing assistants and highway maintenance workers.1 The constant exposure to vibration and static posture may pose bus drives at high risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Emergency responders may be required to exert excessive forces in awkward postures in emergency situations, which may lead to an increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Nursing assistants are at high risk of developing neck, shoulder, and back pain from lifting and handling patients. Highway maintenance workers performing equipment repair and maintenance may also experience high rates of musculoskeletal disorders.

The NIOSH Musculoskeletal Health Program is particularly sensitive to the needs of worker populations at disproportionate risk, including older workers, immigrant workers, minority workers, and low-wage workers. Older workers are more susceptible to developing MSDs and need more time away from work to recover from them than younger workers. Immigrant, minority, and low-wage workers are less likely to report MSDs to management because they are often afraid of discrimination; being dismissed, losing hours, or having to pay for rehabilitation on their own. There is also sometimes a language barrier preventing workers in these populations from reporting MSDs. These specific groups are important to consider when developing intervention strategies for MSDs because they comprise a growing percentage of the US workforce. The Program also plans to develop tools and resources for small business owners on work-related MSD prevention strategies, such as computer vision assisted or wearable sensor assisted risk assessments.

  1. BLS [2018]. Chart 19: Incidence rate and number of injuries and illnesses due to musculoskeletal disorders by selected occupations, all ownerships, 2017. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, icon

Page last reviewed: September 23, 2019