THE OCCURRENCE OF MUSCULOSKELETAL disorders (MSDs) in U.S. workplaces can be a significant business concern (Why sall, Haslam & Haslam, 2006; Graves, Way, Riley, et al., 2004; Rodrigues, 2001; GAO, 1997; NIOSH, 1993). MSDs are typically linked to employee operating errors that result in substandard work quality and reduced operational productivity (Graves, et al., 2004; Beevis & Slade, 2003; Beevis, 2003; Van Fleet & Bates, 1995). In 2002, MSDs accounted for 487,900 (34%) of the injuries and illnesses in the U.S. involving days away from work (Whysall, et al., 2006). Between 1994 and 2002, the state of Washington estimated the cost of workers' compensation linked to MSDs to be $3.3 billion (Silverstein, Adams & Kalat, 2005). This problem is not unique to U.S.-based industries. MSDs are the most common form of work-related illness in today's industrialized nations. In Great Britain, for example, MSD risk factors can be found in virtually every occupation and workplace (Graves, et al., 2004). In 2003, work-related MSDs represented two-thirds of occupational diseases in France, with an incidence rate of more than 1 in 1,000 workers (Roquelaure, Ha, Leclerc, et al., 2006). Evidenced-based research has shown that confronting and managing MSDs in the workplace improves employee work performance (Beevis & Slade, 2003, Hendrick, 2003; Seeley & Marklin, 2003; Yeow & Sen, 2003; Alexander, 1998; Hendrick, 1996) and overall operational productivity (Freivalds & Yun, 1994). Nevertheless, management and technical specialists (e.g., senior-level executives, operations managers, financial specialists, and design and process engineers) remain skeptical about implementing engineering and administrative controls and practices. Instead, they tend to perceive ergonomic-type investments as an unnecessary expense rather than as a fiscally prudent investment intended to enhance business performance (Wynn, 2003; Hendrick, 2003; Fletcher, 2001; Hendrick, 1996). This skepticism exists in part because ergonomic specialists have not provided a compelling business case to management and technical specialists. The purpose of this plant-level analysis is to take an exploratory step toward simplifying the methodological aspects of making investments in ergonomic practices, while making the economic and operational implications of those investments transparent.
A recreational vehicle manufacturing plant located in the Pacific Northwest volunteered to participate in the exploratory analysis and agreed to the methods necessary to conduct it. The company has been in business for 38 years and typically employs approximately 6,000 management and line-level workers annually. Concerned about the risk of musculoskeletal injuries to line-level employees, plant management arranged for a plant walk-through in order to discuss the various manufacturing processes and tasks that may be linked to musculoskeletal risks and disorders. This walk-through was conducted in order to observe the production process and identify specific tasks that could present exposures to musculoskeletal risk factors (e.g., forceful exertions, awkward postures, static loading, vibration) independent of the presence of historical injuries. Plant management wanted to avoid limiting the scope of the inspection to only tasks associated with injuries, believing this could cause those involved to overlook areas that may contribute to risks despite not being associated with an injury. Plant management identified three manufacturing processes for consideration during the walkthrough: wall press, wall production and end cap.