While this wear and tear may only cause mild discomfort, stiffness or fatigue at first, problems can build over time — especially if someone spends six to eight hours a day repeating the same task or holding the same awkward positions.
"Most musculoskeletal disorders are considered cumulative trauma disorders," says Van Fleet. "One bad move, like bending from the waist, which puts a strain on the lower back doesn't do it, but one gets you closer, and 1,000 might get you there."
In addition to medical costs and time from work if problems become severe, "people's productivity starts to drop off, they're much more irritable, and it's much harder to concentrate on your job when your body's stiff and achy," says Charles Kopin, ergonomic specialist for Industrial Health Care in Waterbury, Conn.
Among the most common repetitive strain disorders experienced in the workplace are lower back strain, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, says Dr. Ronald Leopold, medical director at MetLife Disability in Atlanta. Visual fatigue and headaches also may occur if workstations are set up improperly.
The good news is that by understanding the basic principles of ergonomics, which is the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the specific dimensions and capabilities of employees, these problems can be dramatically reduced.