Pain management, opioid use and how ergonomics could help

As an ergonomist, I think mostly about how “fitting work to people” helps employers and employees to optimize performance. People can do more and produce better quality work when their work environments are well-designed.  I also think a lot about strain/sprain injury avoidance, but mainly in terms of cost, because it’s my job to help employers cost-justify ergonomics interventions. However, I confess that I rarely think deeply about the human costs – the suffering that workers experience when a strain/sprain injury occurs. How do workers manage their pain? How many of them require opioids? How could ergonomics have helped?

First, I want to pause to think about all the things that I CAN do, because I do NOT have a strain/sprain injury.  I enjoy running, hiking, kayaking, baking, and gardening. My body allows me to do these things because I take care of it, and because my job affords me a lot of physical variety. My company also supports me in setting up an “ergonomic” work environment. (Naturally! 😉)

If my job demanded that I sit on a hard, wooden chair all day, or lift heavy awkward items repetitively, I might have back pain that would prevent me from enjoying my favorite pursuits. I’d likely take medication to allow me to continue to do a few of my favourite things, but I’d be forced to give some up, and take up less active hobbies (more reading and less moving). Being less active would affect my physical and mental health. I can become downright cranky if I go more than a couple of days without a sweat. And if I couldn’t exercise, would I have to give up baking, too? I run so I can bake cookies.

If I started to take medication so I could stay active, I might have trouble managing without it. And here, for many people, begins the problem. Here are a few stats that I found:


    • A 2020 study of construction workers showed that 34% of workers had experienced a musculoskeletal disorder. These workers were 3 times more likely to use prescription opioids.

    • A 2020 paper in the American Journal of Public Health reported that opioid overuse deaths were more prevalent amongst workers with physically heavy jobs. They cited a report that “57% of opioid-related overdose deaths occurred after a work injury, with 13% of overdose deaths preceded by a work injury within the past 3 years of death.”

    • The Government of Canada cites seeking relief from pain due to strain/sprain injuries as one of 3 reasons that workers may turn to substance abuse.

It’s a big leap to suggest that ergonomics could address the opioid epidemic, but ergonomics can certainly make an impact on job design and strain/sprain injuries. If we want to keep workers in the trades, we need to make improvements to the design of the equipment used by tradespeople. (Skilled Trades ergonomics research is being done locally at Conestoga College.)  If we want to move toward a hybrid work model, we need to ensure that employees have access to decent furniture and the skills to adjust it appropriately. Strain/sprains continue to be the leading cause of workplace injuries and lost time.

I’m grateful for the knowledge and equipment that allows me to work in comfort, so I can continue to lead a balanced, active lifestyle outside of work. How about you? And your co-workers? Please take a moment to consider the workers who have left your organization because they were injured, or they couldn’t cope with the physical demands. How are they doing now? Give us a call so we can help to prevent strain/sprain injuries at your workplace. Everyone should be able to go geo-caching with their kids, play baseball, take up archery, or go horseback riding, if they want to.

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