OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the association between upper extremity soft tissue disorders and exposure to preventable ergonomic stressors in vehicle manufacturing operations. METHODS: A cross sectional study was conducted in one vehicle stamping plant and one engine assembly plant. A standardised physical examination of the upper extremities was performed on all subjects. An interviewer administered questionnaire obtained data on demographics, work history, musculoskeletal symptoms, non-occupational covariates, and psycho-physical (relative intensity) ratings of ergonomic stressors. The primary exposure score was computed by summing the responses to the psychophysical exposure items. Multivariate regression analysis was used to model the prevalence of disorders of the shoulders or upper arms, wrists or hands, and all upper extremity regions (each defined both by symptoms and by physical examination plus symptoms) as a function of exposure quartile. RESULTS: A total of 1315 workers (85% of the target population) was examined. The prevalence of symptom disorders was 22% for the wrists or hands and 15% for the shoulders or upper arms; cases defined on the basis of a physical examination were about 80% as frequent. Disorders of the upper extremities, shoulders, and wrists or hands all increased markedly with exposure score, after adjustment for plant, acute injury, sex, body mass index, systemic disease, and seniority. CONCLUSIONS: Musculoskeletal disorders of the upper extremities were strongly associated with exposure to combined ergonomic stressors. The exposure-response trend was very similar for symptom cases and for physical examination cases. It is important to evaluate all dimensions of ergonomic exposure in epidemiological studies, as exposures often occur in combination in actual workplaces.
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