Collecting, Interpreting Data is Key to Mitigating MSDs, Experts Say

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – Musculoskeletal disorders are the most common and among the most expensive occupational injuries. They cover a wide array of injury types and causes across a multitude of industries.

Trying to understand them is the first step in prevention. Organizations that can also collect and properly interpret their data can identify focus areas for strategies to mitigate MSD issues.

MSDs Explained

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines MSDs as “musculoskeletal system and connective tissue diseases and disorders when the event or exposure leading to the case is bodily reaction, overexertion or repetitive motion.”

“Basically, how the musculoskeletal and associated connective tissue react, often adversely, to an event. Say it’s an activity, like bending or climbing or reaching. Or, a reaction to the exposure of how that activity is being done – repetition, force, vibration in some cases,” said Sonya Luisoni, senior risk control manager for Safety National. “What it doesn’t include are slips, trips, falls or similar incidents.”

MSDs encompass a myriad of injury types and causes across many industries. In addition to sprains, strains, carpal tunnel, and tears large and small, there are also ruptures – of backs, shoulders and other joints.

For employers, the costs can be astronomical. Absenteeism, lost productivity, and increased costs for workers’ compensation, healthcare and disability are among the expenses due to MSDs. Some statistics put the overall annual pricetag for MSDs to employers as high as $54 billion.

Companies can target areas where the bulk of their MSDs occur; whether it’s a physical location, specific departments, age or tenure of employees, certain jobs or other aspects. The first step is uncovering the evidence.

“Before implementing a program, you need to look at your data,” said Tanya Parker, senior account manager for Safety National. “It will tell you a lot about where you need to focus your efforts.”


Collecting and interpreting data to help develop a MSD program does not need to be exceedingly complex. It’s a matter of knowing what to look for and how to interpret it.

“Anytime you begin to gather your data you should start with some simple questions,” Parker said. “Start simple, gather your data and more than likely this will lead you to a more in-depth analysis.”

Examples of “simple” questions are:

  • What types of claims are most prevalent – the nature of injury report?
  • What body parts are the claims coming from the most?
  • What causes of the claims are most prevalent?

To demonstrate the collection and use of such data, Parker pointed to a study the company conducted of its own claims information. Evaluated through May 2021, the study included nearly 700,000 claims related to MSDs.

In looking at the cost of MSD claims by specific nature of injury, “ruptures” were by far at the top. With costs of more than $86,000, these were far higher than the second highest – carpal tunnel at more than $41,000.

In terms of severity by body part, “disc” had the highest average cost.

Taking it a step further, the study identified repetitive motion as the highest priced cause of MSD injuries.

“The bulk of claims we have for MSDs are back injuries leading to ruptured discs due to repetitive motion, maybe from repetitive lifting,” Parker said. “These three simple graphs can tell a compelling story and help you develop a path.”

Additional ways to look at data include:

  • Severity by class codes.
  • Age-related reports. The study found that for its claims, the age groups 45 to 54, and 35 – 44 had the highest number of MSD claims relative to other claims. The study also found the cost of MSD claims relative to other claims increased with age.

“Over age 40, the severity nearly doubles,” Parker said. “This is when you can start asking yourself, why. Are they taking longer to heal? Do they need more diagnostic testing? Do they require more treatment? Do they need more or different training?”

Looking at certain data can also indicate where and when more and the most expensive MSDs are occurring. Physical locations, departments, certain shifts, certain days, the time of day can provide important insights to help figure out where to focus efforts.

“All this information is great, but only as good as your data and how it is interpreted,” Parker said. “None of these analyses will help if your information is poor, or if you’re not capturing it all.”

Organizations analyzing their data should know their limitations, and their information gaps. A data cleanup may be necessary. “Look at the incident reporting process for data improvement opportunities,” Parker said. “Look at the data to male sure you’re getting what you want to focus on.”

Prevention Strategies

Preventing MSDs may involve ergonomic and/or individual risk factors. Ergonomic risk factors are related to an activity, and how movements are being done; such as lifting, awkward postures, repetitive tasks, standing in one place for an extended period, or staying in cold/freezing environments for long stretches. A combination of administrative, engineering or personal protection equipment may help mitigate these risks.

Individual risk factors are about the specific person doing the work. For example, workers who are more physically fit, of normal weight and have good nutrition are typically less prone to injury and recover more quickly if they are injured.

But managing individual risk factors is tricky for employers.

“It’s out of your control,” Luisoni said. “How can you affect a person’s lifestyle?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has materials that can assist employers in this regard. The Worksite Health Scorecard and the Worksite Health Promotion Program include a variety of questions and resources that can help.

Having conversations with supervisors, safety managers and front line staff many employees about the various risk factors is also advised. “What are the most demanding jobs? Who are they challenges for? Where do the challenges lie?” Luisoni said. “These conversations are really about engaging employee participation and soliciting their expertise. It’s about building culture and letting people understand they are part of the solution.”

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