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Is Job Rotation Effective for Reducing Musculoskeletal (MSDs)Disorders in Manufacturing?

One of the questions I am asked frequently is what do I think about job rotation as a method to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).  Instead of answering this question out right, let’s answer it based on a recent meta-analysis study which looked to determine the effectiveness of job rotation to prevent and/or control the risk of MSDs.  The study, Job Rotation Designed to Prevent Musculoskeletal Disorders and Control Risk in Manufacturing Industries: A Systematic Review, was published in the Applied Ergonomics journal last year.

Before we look at the conclusions from the study we need to define the job rotation.  There are many variations of the meaning of job rotation, but the best definition depends upon the context of its use.  For managing job rotation the best definition is alternating workers between tasks and jobs that require different skills and responsibility.  For risk control, the best definition is a strategy for alternating workers between tasks with different exposure levels and occupational demands which aims at avoiding overloading specific body parts. Successful job rotation depends on careful planning and implementing of the job rotation program which is highly dependent on determining the specific parameters needed to achieve an effective rotation and the training workers in several jobs to ensure process and product quality. 

Now back to the study findings.  It had three primary conclusions.

1) There is weak evidence that supports job rotation as a strategy for preventing and controlling MSDs.  The authors had difficulty in finding quality studies and they noted there were no studies that utilized randomized control trials.  After searching over 10,000 eligible studies they were left with only 14 that qualified for their meta-analysis study.  Of those 14, only one was rated as good (study design), all of the others were rated as fair.

2) Overall, job rotation did not appear to reduce the exposure physical risk factors. Overall the evidence for job rotation on reducing MSDs was mixed, i.e. some showed improved while others showed none.  Interestingly, one study that was a year-long reported a statistically significant increase in worker perceptions of exertion in job rotation compared to workers not in a job rotation program.  In regard to length of time spent in each job, one study showed high-risk tasks and better recovery time from fatigue were best when rotation occurred every 2 hours.  Another study showed that physical load (measured by muscle activity) was decreased significantly in assembly line jobs with rotation; however, it did not reduce musculoskeletal complaints. 

3) There were positive correlations between job rotation and improved worker job satisfaction.  Psychosocially, job rotation appeared to increase job satisfaction in some studies, yet the authors noted that these studies were deemed to “have only fair methodological quality”.

So, what’s the bottom line on job rotation?  Job rotation is an administrative type of control used to reduce and/or prevent MSDs.  It can be an important intervention to help reduce hazards.  However, greater success in preventing MSDs will be achieved by finding the root of the problem and making the ergonomic improvements that will eliminate those injuries from occurring in the first place.  My advice is to use job rotation not as a primary method of MSDS control, but only as a secondary method after other measures have been implemented and the MSD risk remains.  What do you think?  Post your comments below.

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