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Efforts have been made in recent years to increase workplace safety through regulations, innovative technologies, hazard assessments and other methods. Despite this, research shows workers of color face more work-related injuries and illnesses, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Recognizing this disparity and that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common workplace injury, the National Safety Council (NSC) has released a new report, The Intersection of DEI and MSDs: Ensuring Equitable Outcomes.

“This report, which analyzes the impact of diversity, equity and inclusion on the largest category of workplace injuries, underscores our commitment to advancing equitable outcomes within the occupational safety landscape.”

— Lorraine Martin, President/CEO, NSC 

“At the National Safety Council, we believe fostering diversity, equity and inclusion is not only a moral imperative but also essential for creating safer and healthier work environments for all,” said Lorraine Martin, NSC president and CEO. “This report, which analyzes the impact of diversity, equity and inclusion on the largest category of workplace injuries, underscores our commitment to advancing equitable outcomes within the occupational safety landscape.”

DEI And MSDs: Exploring Key Findings

Published through the MSD Solutions Lab, the research paper identifies workplace factors that can lead to inequitable MSD outcomes and provides solutions for mitigation. Specifically, the report references more than 100 academic publications and sources and examines the impact of diversity, equity and inclusion on work organization, workplace and equipment design, safety culture, psychological safety and psychosocial risk factors.

Here are some key findings:

Work organization: Shift work, long hours, and part-time employee status can impact the prevalence of MSDs among workers. Demanding work schedules can increase the risk of MSDs due to less time for adequate sleep and recovery from work, longer exposure to hazards and demands at work, and less time to attend to non-work responsibilities. Other workplace factors highly associated with MSD risk and prevalence are the type of job and the pace at which work is done.

Workplace and equipment design: An employee who uses a wheelchair or an employee smaller than a fifth percentile female may have difficulty accessing the full range of their workstation depending on its design. PPE has also traditionally been designed to fit the average white male and, as a result, females in the workforce are often not provided with properly fitting gear. One survey found that only 19% of women, non-binary, and transgender construction workers received appropriately sized gloves and safety gear.

Safety culture: Creating a strong safety culture is an important factor in making sure workplaces are inclusive and safe from MSD risks. Workplaces that do not offer benefits, such as paid sick leave and long-term disability, may create an unsafe culture in which employees feel insecure about taking necessary time off when they have suffered a workplace injury. Clear and accessible policies and procedures are vital to ensuring organizations are equitably protecting all workers from safety risks.

Voice suppression can prove particularly harmful to employees of color, as they may already perceive their voices and opinions as less valued than the majority group. As a result of this disparity, Black and Hispanic workers report the most unease about reporting unsafe work conditions when compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

Psychological safety: Employee wellbeing at work is significantly influenced by a sense of belonging to the organization or team, with managers showing appreciation for their employees and involving them in decision-making. Voice suppression can prove particularly harmful to employees of color, as they may already perceive their voices and opinions as less valued than the majority group. As a result of this disparity, Black and Hispanic workers report the most unease about reporting unsafe work conditions when compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

Psychosocial risk factors: Common psychosocial risk factors are job stress, lack of job control or autonomy, job dissatisfaction, time pressure, and poor organizational, supervisor or coworker support. Occupational stress has shown to increase MSDs, with role conflict and lack of job control leading to wrist, hand, shoulder, and lower back issues. Further, psychosocial risks are more pervasive in jobs and industries commonly employing workers of color and female workers.

DEI, Workplace Injury Prevention
(Photo: Adobe Stock / pornchai)

Potential Solutions

In addition to examining the impact of workplace factors on MSDs, the report also outlines potential solutions to address inequities and risks based on the hierarchy of controls. These include:

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  • Elimination: Be mindful of jobs that demand high exertions, awkward or sustained postures, and a fast pace and eliminate them when able.
  • Substitution: Adapt workplace design to those with different sizes and abilities and provide ergonomic accommodations for employees with medical conditions or disabilities.
  • Engineering: Provide adjustable assistive devices and technology — including lifts, ramps, hoists, cobots, carts, counterbalances, turntables and conveyors — to minimize strain and repetitive motions and incorporate designs respecting different cultural norms and practices.
  • Administrative: Utilize policies and procedures to ensure accessibility for all workers, an open and anonymous reporting system, and promote diverse representation in safety leadership and training materials. Further, it is essential to seek and include feedback on job tasks and risk factors from a diverse group of employees to source solutions that are helpful for everyone.
  • PPE: Routinely check in with employees to confirm PPE needs are being appropriately met, including those with different body types, abilities and cultural preferences.
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