Assessment of physical workloads to prevent work-related MSDs

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Rolf Ellegast, Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance


To prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders, it is necessary to record and assess physical workload factors at the workplace. Numerous methods are available for this, differing however in terms of the precision achieved in the recording and assessment of workload and in terms of user groups. This article gives a classification of physical workload factors and an overview of the basic categories of methods for recording and assessment. It cites examples of each category and highlights future fields of action.

Physical workload factors and corresponding MSDs

At many workplaces, physical hazards are still an everyday occurrence. They are considered a risk factor for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that represent one of the most frequent causes of work-related incapacity to work in Europe [1]. The estimated economic production loss due to MSDs is high[2].

For prevention of work-related MSDs risk assessment of physical workloads is an important part of the risk management process. It comprises a multistep approach to improve workplace health and safety and productivity[3]. The general five steps of the risk assessment procedure involve identifying hazards and those at risk, evaluating and prioritising risks, decisions on preventive actions, executing actions and finally monitoring and reviewing at regular intervals.

To tackle work-related MSDs all five steps require precise knowledge of the physical workload factors and an estimate of the associated risks at workplaces. This involves recording physical workload factors associated with work-related musculoskeletal disorders in order, in a second step, to initiate the relevant ergonomic prevention measures.

For the recording and assessment of physical workload factors, numerous methods are available, ranging from interviews and surveys, field measurements and video-analysis up to laboratory measurements and simulations. However, these methods differ among other things in terms of the precision obtained in the recording and assessment of workloads and in terms of user groups. The assessment often targets the risk to a certain region of the body (e.g. the spine). The goal of this article is to classify physical workloads and to give an overview of principle methods for their recording and assessment.

Physical workload factors can be classified in the following categories:

  • Manual material handling, e.g. lifting, holding, carrying, pulling and pushing[4]
  • Working in awkward postures (overload and underload), e.g. awkward trunk postures, crouching, kneeling, squatting, arms above shoulder level, lack of physical activity: sitting, standing, lying
  • Repetitive work
  • Work involving high exertion and/or exposure to force, e.g. climbing, knocking, hammering.

Table 1 shows these physical risk factor categories together with examples of corresponding work-related MSDs and sectors/occupational groups/tasks[5].

Table 1 – Physical workload factors with examples of corresponding work-related MSDs and associated sectors/occupations/tasks

Physical workload factors Examples of corresponding work-related MSDs Examples of associated sectors/occupations/tasks
Manual handling:
Lifting, holding, carrying Low Back Pain
Intervertebral lumbar disc disorders/injuries (e.g. protrusion, prolapse)

Lower Limb disorders, e.g. osteoarthritis of the hip and knee joints

Construction sector: assembly of scaffolding, masonry work with blocks requiring handling with both hands, carpentry work
Transport trades: vehicle maintenance, baggage handling work at airports

Agriculture, forestry, landscaping
Metal industry: foundries/casting fettlers, metalwork
Nursing and health services: tasks in healthcare and geriatric care
Trade and logistics: warehousing, order-picking, transport work; parcel sorting

Pushing and pulling Low Back Pain
Intervertebral lumbar disc disorders/injuries (e.g. protrusion, prolapse)

Neck Shoulder MSDs

Nursing and health services: pushing and pulling of beds and wheelchairs

Transport trades: pushing and pulling of trolleys on airliners, baggage handling work at airports, special tasks of aviation mechanics, domestic refuse disposal (refuse workers)
Landscaping: pushing and pulling of containers containing plants (loading)
Trade and logistics: warehousing, order-picking and transport work; pushing/pulling of trolleys in mail-order/postal operations
Cross-sector: pushing and pulling of carriages/trucks

Working in awkward postures:
Sitting without effective breaks/with lack of movement Low Back Pain

Neck Shoulder MSDs

Specific workplaces/tasks:

Microscopy workplaces
Seated (primarily) activity at a process control system, control panel work
Tasks in drivers' cabs
Surveillance workplaces

Standing without effective relief Lower Limb Disorders Meat-processing industry: meat portioning

Nursing and health services: sustained standing at operating tables, in some cases in conjunction with constrained postures
Retail trade: sales tasks
Construction sector: carpenters

Working in awkward trunk postures, static/dynamic, high proportion of the time Low Back Pain

Intervertebral lumbar disc disorders/injuries (e.g. protrusion, prolapse)

Metals industry: tank construction, shipbuilding, welding in confined spaces, visual weld inspection

Mining: at faces with a free working height of less than approx. 160 cm
Construction sector: concrete technicians, steelfixers, composition floor layers, tilers, plumbers, bricklayers
Transport trades: aircraft loading personnel
Horticulture: vegetable harvesting, plant work, pruning work at ground level, grafting of roses, etc.
Children's daycare facilities: daycare facility staff

Squatting, kneeling, lying Lower Limb Disorders

Low Back Pain

Mining sector: faceworker during extraction – work at the face at a free working height of up to approximately 120 cm

Construction sector: floorers, roofers, tilers, plumbers, parquet layers
Metals industry: welding in confined spaces (e.g. tanks, double bottoms, shipbuilding)
Cross-sector: work in poorly accessible places, e.g. in shipbuilding, turbine manufacture, aircraft manufacture

Arms above shoulder level Low Back Pain

Neck Shoulder MSDs

Construction sector: decorating work, stucco workers and plasterers, plasterboard construction

Automotive industry: special assembly work in the manufacture and maintenance of vehicles
Cross-sector: maintenance work

Repetitive tasks with high handling frequencies Upper limb MSDs, e.g. Carpal Tunnelsyndrome, wrist tendinitis, and lateral epicondylitis Trade, logistics and postal services: tasks in packaging and mail order, mail sorting offices, order-picking

Food industry: for example fish and meat processing
Textile and clothing industry: sewing workplaces
Nursing and health services: masseurs

Work involving high exertion and/or exposure to force Low Back Pain

Upper limb MSDs, e.g. Carpal Tunnelsyndrome, wrist tendinitis, and lateral epicondylitis

Horticulture: tree care/felling with the use of rope-assisted tree-climbing techniques (basic and advanced)

Construction sector: facade construction workers – erection of facades, scaffolding erection during work on special structures (bridges, towers)
Power supply works: maintenance for example of overhead lines, wind-power systems, transmitter towers

Source: [5]

Based on data from the Labour Force Survey (2013)[6] physical workload factors are still widely spread in the EU member states. Figure 1 shows the percentage of workers reporting exposure to risk factors that can adversely affect physical health. Handling loads and especially working in awkward postures are among the highest reported risk factors. According to the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) physical workload factors are still widely spread in the EU member states. A comparison between EWCS data from 2005, 2010, and 2015 shows a light decrease of exposure for (most of) the physical risk factors but European workers remain exposed to several physical hazards associated with MSDs. For instance, one third of the workers (32%) carry heavy loads at least a quarter of their working time, while almost one in five (20%) are exposed to vibration. Furthermore 40% of all workers work in tiring or painful postures for at least a quarter of the time, and 61% are exposed to repetitive hand or arm movements [1].

Figure 1 - Persons reporting exposure to risk factors that can adversely affect physical health by factor - EU-28 - 2013

Physical workload.jpg

Source: Graph compiled based on Eurostat [6]

Assessment of physical workloads

Figure 2: Basic categories of methods for recording and assessment of physical workloads at the workplace and potential user groups

Figure 2 shows the basic categories of methods for recording and assessment of physical workloads at the workplace with their potential user groups[5]. The top category (Level 1) covers questionnaires and self reported data. In this category workers have to estimate retrospectively the occurrence and frequency of their daily amount of physical workload. Epidemiological studies on work-related MSDs often use self-reported data for exposure assessment. These methods are known as inaccurate workload assessments as the workers’ ability to estimate their physical exposure is limited and workers that already suffer from MSDs tend to overestimate their exposure.

In the next category (Level 2) checklists are used to identify workload focused at the workplace. Normally checklists contain limiting values for the assessment of specific physical workload types. If these limiting values are exceeded, workload focuses can be identified.[7]. Checklists are often used in combination with medical check-ups[8].

If a physical risk factor occurs, such as the lifting and carrying of loads, it is advisable to employ more specific observational methods (Level 3) in order to assess the associated risk factors more precisely. There are many examples of screening observational methods. For instance:

  • the Finnish OWAS method[9]. OWAS is the abbreviation of Ovako Working posture Assessment System. This method was first developed and introduced in Finland in a steel production company (Ovako) in the 1970s. Aspects to be observed include the weight of the load and postures of the back, arms, and lower extremities (seven postures).
  • the Key Indicator Methods (KIM)[10][11][12] [13]. The KIM method was developed in Germany by the Federal Institute for occupational safety and health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (BAUA)). The screening methods cover six types of workload: lifting, holding and carrying; pushing and pulling; manual handling operations; whole body forces; awkward postures and body movements. Tools and instructions on how to use the screening method are available in German, English, Spanish, French, Dutch and Swedish [14].
  • HSE. The Health and Safety executive (UK) presents three methods depending on the risk factor or type of activity.
    • the MAC tool [15](Manual handling Assessment Charts) addresses lifting and carrying, and manual handling operations. The method is based on a checklist and sets out 11 items of manual handling to be evaluated.
    • the ART tool (Assessment of Repetitive Tasks) is used for assessing repetitive tasks associated with upper limb disorders [16]. The ART tool uses a numerical score to indicate the level of risk for twelve factors grouped into four categories (frequency/repetition of movements; force; postures; additional factors such as duration).
    • the RAPP tool (Risk assessment of pushing and pulling) is used for pushing and pulling operations. The tool makes a distinction between pushing and pulling associated with moving loads on wheeled equipment (e.g. hand trolleys) and moving loads without wheels [17].
  • the RULA method[18] (Rapid Upper Limb Assessment). In the RULA method is based on the observation of the postures of individual body segments and then given a numerical value in relation to how far they deviate from the neutral position. Additional weights are given to the postures according to forces/loads handled and the occurrence of static/repetitive muscular activity.
  • the OCRA method/OCRA checklist[19][20] (Occupational Repetitive Action). The OCRA method is based on the observation of actions and the attribution of weights for six risk factors such as movement, posture, duration, force, …
  • the HALmethod [21] (Hand Activity Level). The HALmethod is developed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and can be used for the evaluation of job risk factors associated with musculoskeletal disorders of the hand and wrist. The evaluation is based an assessment of hand activity and the level of effort for a typical posture while performing a short cycle task.

The observational screening methods are simple, quick and practical to use. The application of these methods is particularly suited to cyclic, uniform workload profiles at workplaces. A systematic review and comparison of observational methods assessing biomechanical exposures in occupational settings has been published in [18]. Their application is limited in cases of the assessment of more complex work processes that are difficult to classify in the general workload categories. For certain types of work, such as activities involving physical exertion or awkward postures, there are few observational assessment methods. An example of an expert observational method for the assessment of activities involving physical exertion and/or exposure to force is the Exertion Atlas developed under the supervision of the Institute of Ergonomics of Darmstadt Technical University (IAD). For the assessment of different types of workload and particularly for cyclic activities in the automotive and supply industry, the IAD has developed the AAWS (Automotive Assembly Worksheet)[22] and the EAWS (European Assembly Worksheet)[23] in this category.

Observational methods are subject to the usual limitations of this category. The drawback of these methods is that they only roughly classify workload categories and often do not adequately reflect the complexity of work processes[24]. In particular, three-dimensional movements, such as the torsion and lateral flexion of the back, can only be recorded with great inaccuracy using observation methods[25]. Furthermore, it is not possible to appropriately record and assess the pattern of stressing and rest over time.

Therefore some applications necessitate the performance of measurements of physical workloads directly at the workplace (field measurements, Level 4). A number of measuring systems have been developed for the recording and analysis of body posture and movements in the work process. Most of these are designed specifically for the recording of the movement of parts of the body, e.g. the back[26][27]. One example of a field measuring system that allows for long-time analyses (e.g. for an entire work shift) is the CUELA (“computer-aided recording and long-term analysis of musculoskeletal workloads”) measuring method[28][5]. It permits the continuous recording and analysis of physical workload factors directly at the workplace. Given prior training, field measuring methods can be applied with a degree of effort comparable to that for the expert screening method. Depending on the application, the field measuring methods permit an assessment on the basis of biomechanical, energy/cardiopulmonary, muscular, psychophysical and epidemiological criteria. The limitations of measuring methods at the workplace include limitations in terms of the measurement accuracy (e.g. for measurements of exertion) characteristic of field measurements in real working conditions.

This is where laboratory measurements (Level 5) in which work processes are replicated under standardised experimental conditions yield the most precise data on the physical workload situation. Such laboratory measurements have been conducted for the analysis of several activities as nursing and for specific workloads[29][30][31].

Knowledge gaps and future activities

The presented methods of the various recording and assessment levels have been developed in most cases independently of one another and have rarely been combined. The precise principles for the assessment of each method have not always been disclosed in detail. Efforts should be made to interlink the methods of all levels and precisely present the assessment principles. As a result it would be possible to identify gaps in the knowledge, develop the methods on all levels further and eliminate discrepancies in the assessment results.

Examples of gaps in the knowledge include the lack of approaches for the assessment of awkward postures and a consideration of both the risks of under-stimulation and of the pattern of stressing and rest (recovery phases) over time. The goal for prevention is to recommend the right degree of workload and thus prevent both occupational overload as well as under-stimulation, e.g. from lack of exercise.

Furthermore, there is a need to review the applicability and validity of ergonomic assessment methods for assessing tasks when workers are using exoskeletons in the workplace [32]. Exoskeletons reduce the exposure to specific physical demands (e.g. force of the upper limbs), but the biomechanical load might shift to other joints or muscle groups [33]. These effects have to be taken into account and integrated in the assessment methods in order to fully evaluate the physical load and associated risks [34].

For the assessment of the risks associated with specific work-related musculoskeletal diseases, e.g. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), there is a need for assessment methods that do justice to the associated specific risk factors. Also relevant to CTS are assessments of the speed and frequency of wrist movements that are virtually impossible to determine using observational methods. One way of nevertheless obtaining near-authentic assessments involves compiling activity-specific exposure databases based on objective measured values. For the assessment of the knee-stressing activities associated with a high risk of inducing gonarthrosis, such a database has been established[35]. Another advantage of these exposure databases is the possibility of using them in epidemiological studies. At present, exposure data on physical workloads in epidemiological studies are mainly recorded by questioning the persons concerned and are subject to the limitations of retrospective exposure recording. The inaccuracies associated with this could be reduced considerably by using exposure databases.

Along with physical workloads, it is important to take account of mental and psychosocial workloads that are associated with musculoskeletal disorders. Examples of this type of workload factors include:

  • Highly demanding work
  • Poor control/scope for decision-making
  • Lack of social support (from superiors, colleagues)
  • Insufficient gratification
  • Dissatisfaction with work
  • Workplace insecurity
  • Monotony

The development of methods for the combined recording and assessment of physical and mental/psychosocial workloads at the workplace therefore represents a further important field of action.


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Links for further reading

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Practical tools and guidance on musculoskeletal disorders, Available at: [21]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Healthy workers, thriving companies - a practical guide to wellbeing at work, Available at: [22]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Conversation starters for workplace discussions about musculoskeletal disorders, Available at: [23]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Work-related musculoskeletal disorders: prevalence, costs and demographics in the EU, 2019. Available at: [24]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work,The impact of using exoskeletons on occupational safety and health, 2019. Available at: [25]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, The human-machine interface as an emerging risk, Available at: [26]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, E-fact 45 - Checklist for preventing bad working postures, Available at: [27]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, E-fact 44 - Checklist for the prevention of manual handling risks, Available at: [28]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, E-fact 43 - Checklist for preventing WRULDs, Available at: [29]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, E-fact 42 - Checklist for prevention of lower limb disorders, Available at: [30]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at work, Work-related musculoskeletal disorders: prevention report, 2008, Available at: [31]


OSH: Physical work, Risk assessment, Work load, Musculoskeletal disorders
NACE: Growing of non-perennial crops, Growing of perennial crops, Animal production, Mixed farming, Support activities to agriculture and post-harvest crop activities, Logging, Support services to forestry, Fishing, Aquaculture, Mining of hard coal, Mining of lignite, Extraction of crude petroleum and natural gas, Mining of metal ores, Quarrying of stone, Mining support service activities, Processing and preserving of meat and production of meat products, Processing and preserving of fish, Processing and preserving of fruit and vegetables, Manufacture of vegetable and animal oils and fats, Manufacture of dairy products, Manufacture of grain mill products, Manufacture of starches and starch products, Manufacture of bakery and farinaceous products, Manufacture of other food products, Manufacture of prepared animal feeds, Manufacture of beverages, Preparation and spinning of textile fibres, Weaving of textiles, Finishing of textiles, Manufacture of other textiles, Manufacture of wearing apparel, Tanning and dressing of leather; dressing and dyeing of fur, [[Property:NACE 15 12|]], Manufacture of footwear, Sawmilling and planing of wood, [[Property:NACE 16 2|]], Manufacture of paper and paper products, Printing of newspapers, Other printing, Binding and related services, Manufacture of coke oven products, Manufacture of basic chemicals, Manufacture of pesticides and other agrochemical products, Manufacture of paints, Manufacture of soap and detergents, Manufacture of perfumes and toilet preparations, Manufacture of explosives, Manufacture of glues, Manufacture of basic pharmaceutical products, Manufacture of pharmaceutical preparations, Manufacture of rubber and plastic products, Manufacture of glass and glass products, Manufacture of refractory products, Manufacture of clay building materials, Manufacture of other porcelain and ceramic products, Manufacture of cement, Manufacture of articles of concrete, Cutting, Manufacture of abrasive products and non-metallic mineral products n.e.c., Manufacture of basic metals, Manufacture of structural metal products, Manufacture of tanks, [[Property:NACE 25 3|]], Manufacture of weapons and ammunition, Forging, Treatment and coating of metals, Machining, Manufacture of cutlery, Manufacture of other fabricated metal products, Manufacture of electric motors, Manufacture of batteries and accumulators, Manufacture of wiring and wiring devices, Manufacture of electric lighting equipment, Manufacture of domestic appliances, Manufacture of general-purpose machinery, Manufacture of other general-purpose machinery, Manufacture of agricultural and forestry machinery, Manufacture of metal forming machinery, Manufacture of other special-purpose machinery, Manufacture of bodies (coachwork, Manufacture of bodies (coachwork, Building of ships and boats, Manufacture of air and spacecraft and related machinery, Manufacture of military fighting vehicles, Manufacture of motorcycles, Manufacture of furniture, Manufacture of jewellery, Manufacture of musical instruments, Manufacture of sports goods, Manufacture of games and toys, Repair of fabricated metal products, Installation of industrial machinery and equipment, Electric power generation, Manufacture of gas; distribution of gaseous fuels through mains, Water collection, Sewerage, Waste collection, Waste treatment and disposal, Materials recovery, Remediation activities and other waste management services, OFFICE CLERKS, Civil engineering, Demolition and site preparation, Electrical, Building completion and finishing, Roofing activities, Retail sale in non-specialised stores, [[Property:NACE 47 2|]], Retail sale of automotive fuel in specialised stores, Retail sale of information and communication equipment in specialised stores, Retail sale of other household equipment in specialised stores, [[Property:NACE 47 6|]], Retail sale of other goods in specialised stores, Retail sale via stalls and markets, Passenger rail transport, Freight rail transport, Urban and suburban passenger land transport, Freight transport by road, Sea and coastal passenger water transport, Sea and coastal freight water transport, Inland passenger water transport, Inland freight water transport, Passenger air transport, Freight air transport and space transport, Postal activities under universal service obligation, Hotels and similar accommodation, Holiday and other short-stay accommodation, Camping grounds, Television programming and broadcasting activities, Wired telecommunications activities, Wireless telecommunications activities, Research and experimental development on natural sciences and engineering, Combined facilities support activities, Organisation of conventions and trade shows, Hospital activities, Residential care activities