- Research article
- Open Access
Relationship between Occupational Stress and Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders in Korean Male Firefighters
© Kim et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
- Received: 14 February 2013
- Accepted: 6 May 2013
- Published: 4 July 2013
A growing body of literature has documented that job stress is associated with the development of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs). However, the association of WMSDs with job stress has not yet been fully studied in Korean male firefighters. The purpose of this study was to determine the status of WMSDs in almost all Korean male firefighters and to clarify the effect of job stress on the occurrence of WMSDs.
The study design was cross-sectional, and 21,466 firefighters were recruited. The study design included a structured questionnaire to assess general characteristics, the Korean Occupational Stress Scale (optional KOSS-26), Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression Scale (CES-D), and WMSDs. The chi-square test, and univariate and multivariate logistic regression analyses were used to look for a correlation between general characteristics and job stress, and the occurrence of WMSD.
Back pain is the most common WMSD. Among the job stress subgroup, physical environment, job demands, organizational system, occupational climate, lack of reward and job insecurity were related to the occurrence of WMSDs. However, insufficient job control and interpersonal conflict were not related to the occurrence of WMSDs.
Job stress was related to the occurrence of WMSDs in Korean male firefighters. To reduce the occurrence of WMSDs, a job stress management program may be required.
- Work-related musculoskeletal disorder
- Job stress
In South Korea, firefighters are public employees who prevent and suppress fire, perform emergency rescues, and respond to disasters in a recovery role. They are also exposed to physical dangers including heat, noise, poisonous gases, smoke, carbon monoxide, and diesel fumes . Moreover, they are exposed to traumatic accidents and mental diseases [2, 3]. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder [2–5], mortality by cardiovascular disease , musculoskeletal disease , and oxidative DNA damage  are higher in firefighters than general population. The relationship between these diseases and job stress and shift work , overtime work, a heavy workload [10, 11], discord at work, low social support, role conflicts, and low self-esteem  have been studied in firefighters. In Korean firefighters the turnover decision factor , job satisfaction , occupational climate , conduct of business , and safety-related accident factors  have been studied.
Because of heavy equipment, fire-fighting requires excessive energy and awkward postures, so work-related musculoskeletal disorders(WMSDs) can easily develop. According to United States statistics from 2007, musculoskeletal system diseases like sprains of the muscle or ligament were over 40% of the problems that developed in fire fighting . From 2007, work-related accidents were reported for 279 people among 30,630 Korean firefighters. However, there is no information about WMSDs in Korea .
Only one study has addressed the association between WMSDs and job stress in Korean firefighters , but it did not adequately confirm the relationship between job stress and WMSDs. Also, the study population was small. The purpose of this study was to determine the status of WMSDs in almost all male Korean firefighters and to understand the effect of job stress on the occurrence of WMSDs.
Between early July 2007 and the end of November 2007, structured questionnaires were distributed to 30,601 Korean firefighters. In total, 25,610 (83.6%) of the firefighters responded to the questionnaire. The 1292 female fighters composed only a small portion (4.9%) of the total, so we excluded female firefighter cases. Among those who respond to the questionnaire, only 21,466 (83.8%) firefighters completed the questionnaire, so they were selected as the final subjects.
The method of study and definition
The structured questionnaires had 4 sections; general characteristic factors; work-related job stress factors, depression factors, and WMSDs. The general characteristic factors comprised age, marital status, drinking habits, smoking habits, sports-playing habits, level of education, and work department (Firefighting, Rescue, Emergency Medical Services, or Other). The level of education was defined as at least 16 years or less than that, based on the time required for university graduation. The pay grade was based on the current rank system, which was broken down into firefighter, senior fire sergeant, fire sergeant, fire lieutenant, and a position higher than fire lieutenant. In addition, we measured drinking habits using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) questionnaire . Anyone who had 8 points or more in the AUDIT questionnaire was defined as a problematic heavy drinker . Anyone who did not smoke for a week before the survey or who did not smoke at all was defined as a non-smoker.
The job stress factors were measured by the short form of the Korean Occupational Stress Scale(KOSS-26) . The KOSS-26 inquires about the physical environment, job demands, insufficient job control, interpersonal conflict, job insecurity, organizational system, lack of reward, and occupational climate. The score of each sub-area of job stress survey was converted into units 100 point scale. In this study, the high-risk group was defined as higher than the 75th percentile, and the low-risk group as lower than the 75th percentile in each sub-class of job stress. The depression factors were measured by the Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression Scale (CES-D). Anyone who had 21 points or more on the CES-D questionnaire was defined as depressed . Work-related musculoskeletal disorders were measured by the Korean NIOSH Symptom Survey  which consists of questions regarding the presence of work-related symptoms in any of 6 body regions (neck, shoulders, arms, hands/wrists, lower back, and legs/feet) in the prior year, and symptom severity (frequency, duration, and intensity). The frequency of the symptoms was rated on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (every 6 months) to 5 (daily). The duration of the symptoms was rated on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (less than 1 day) to 5 (6 months or greater). The intensity of the symptoms was rated on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (mild pain) to 5 (very severe pain). WMSD cases were defined as symptoms that had occurred at least once a month or lasted at least one week in the past year and with at least moderate pain intensity .
The reliability coefficient of the job stress questionnaire was 0.799 and that of the CES-D was 0.875. The chi-squared test was used for the general characteristics of the firefighters and job stress. Uni-variate and multivariate logistic regression analysis were used to look for a correlation between general characteristics and job stress, and the occurrence of WMSD. Uni-variate logistic regression analysis was performed with each job stress subtype as an independent variable (Model I). Multivariate logistic regression analysis was performed with age, tenure, exercise, smoking, drinking, marital status, job title and job class as adjusted factors (Model II). Model III added depression to Model II as an adjusted factor. Statistical analyses were performed using the SPSS 17.0 for Windows software package (SPSS, Chicago, IL). All reported p values were two-tailed and those with results < 0.05 were considered to be statistically significant.
General characteristics of subjects according to musculoskeletal symptoms
n = 2,362
n = 19,104
Emergency medical service
Senior fire sergeant
Fire lieutenant or higher
The ratio of complaints of WMSD
Musculoskeletal pain locations in study subjects
Logistic regression analysis of WMSDs according to job stress adjusted for the psychosocial component
Relationship between job stress and musculoskeletal symptom
Insufficient job control
Lack of reward
Total job stress
Adjusted odds ratio of musculoskeletal symptoms according to psychosocial factors
Adjusted OR †
Adjusted OR ‡
2.14 - 2.63
2.03 - 2.62
1.96 - 2.53
2.29 - 2.73
1.38 - 1.74
1.35 - 1.70
Insufficient job control
1.02 - 1.25
0.88 - 1.01
0.88 - 1.10
1.44 - 1.70
1.03 - 1.29
0.99 - 1.24
1.71 - 2.11
1.02 - 1.25
1.01 - 1.28
2.01 - 2.47
1.10 - 1.38
1.21 - 1.56
Lack of reward
1.73 - 2.13
1.08 - 1.39
1.01 - 1.31
1.94 - 2.39
1.19 - 1.49
1.11 - 1.40
As with the previous study , back pain was the most common WMSD in firefighters. This study shows that job stress may have an association with WMSDs in firefighters. Among the job stress subgroup, physical environment, job demand, job insecurity, lack of reward, and occupational climate were associated with WMSDs.
Because fire-fighting is urgent and unpredictable, it is known to generate extreme psychological and physical burdens in the line of duty . When rescuing victims and extinguishing fires, WMSDs can arise due to the unbalanced body positions resulting from the use of heavy fire protection equipment . Back pain is caused by various factors including poor posture, degenerative changes, and psychological states. The principal factor is a bio-mechanical factor because of mechanical stress, particularly heavy weight-handling work. Excessive force is put on the lower back when firefighters use heavy equipment . Work situations that cause back pain for firefighters include operating a charged hose inside a building (odds ratio (OR) = 3.26), climbing ladders (OR = 3.18), breaking windows (OR = 4.45), cutting structures (OR = 6.47), looking for hidden fires (OR = 4.32), and lifting objects ≥18 kg (OR = 3.07) . The risk gradually increased as the fire fighter moved away from the firehouse (OR = 0.10) and closer to the site of the fire (OR = 3.91) .
WMSD is a multi-factorial disorder related to various demographic and general features and work-related characteristics [28, 29]. Social-demographic features, work-related characteristics, health-related behaviors, and job stress can all affect social psychological health levels . Old age, unemployment, past musculoskeletal pain, and shift work are factors that extend the symptoms . There is a hypothesis that muscle strain increases if job-related psychological burdens increase due to job stress, and job stress increases awareness of musculoskeletal symptoms or reduces the capability to manage the symptoms [25, 32, 33]. Unemployment experience, monthly income, lack of sleep, and drinking status acted as major cause of stress . Job insecurity, interpersonal conflicts, the physical environment, and organization systems had negative impacts on the level of mental stress of firefighters . The physical environment had a greater effect on field service workers than office workers . The total job stress of firefighters was similar to that of general workers, but the physical environment factor was higher with firefighters than with general workers. Job insecurity and lack of rewards had somewhat less impact on firefighters than general workers . As pointed out previously, firefighting is dangerous and requires best practices in handling bodily burdens. A lack of reward was associated with WMSDs and the same result has been observed in previous studies [25, 37], and in office workers .
However, insufficient job control does not show as much correlation with WMSDs as a consistent lack of reward . In the present study, a correlation could not be found. The organizational system score evaluates the organization of political tactics, operating systems, organizational resources, and reasonable communication within the community . In subway workers, the organization system score was statistically significantly higher (bad) than in firefighters . The authors believe that South Korea’s authoritarian and vertical organization system and lack of communication would tend to increase the development of WMSDs.
Depression is known to be related to job stress  and Kim et al. have noted that the job insecurity and depression level is high in emotional labor workers. Depression is a major factor of absence and labor injuries , and it is known as an independent precursor to neck and lumbar pain . In firefighters, a change in workload, discord at work, role conflicts, and low pride had links to depression . In a previous study, 33% of the firefighters had symptoms of depression, and firefighters who worked at the fire department had symptoms of depression 2.1 times more frequently than those who worked in the business administration department . In our study, WMSD firefighters had 1.86 times more symptoms of depression then those who had not (95%CI:1.65-2.09).
In a previous report, the distribution of firefighter diseases included circulatory system diseases (26%), musculoskeletal abnormalities (25%), and psychiatric problems (16%) . The most common causes for retirement were musculoskeletal disorders (25%), nervous system and sense organ disorders (24%), and alimentary system problems (13%) . The prevalence of WMSDs (11%) in male Korean firefighters was lower than in the previous study in Korea. However, musculoskeletal symptoms accounted for a significant portion of the firefighter’s disabilities. Therefore the management of WMSDs are also known to be necessary for prevention in medical and engineering management and psychosocial management .
The limitations of this study were as follows. First, there was no physical examination or ergonomic evaluation for defining WMSDs. The personal protective equipment (self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), protective cloth, etc.) of a firefighter weighs just under 25 kg, with the SCBA at about 15 kg . We could not rule out the effect of the heavy equipment and ergonomic factor and they worked as confounding factors in our study.
Another limitation was study design. This study was a cross-sectional study, so further studies are necessary to determine the cause-effect relationship between the studied factors. In spite of these limitations, the study did evaluate enough people to represent all of the male firefighters in Korea.
Our result suggests that job stress may act in firefighters as a factor of WMSD development. Work to reduce job stress and a care system to mange it are needed for firefighters.
This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board at Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute. Written informed consent was obtained from each participant prior to their involvement in the study.
- Bogucki S, Rabinowitz PM: Occupational health of police and firefighters. In Textbook of clinical occupational and environmental medicine. 2nd edition. Edited by: Rosenstock L, Cullen MR, Brodkin CA, Redlich CA. Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders Pub; 2005:272–274.Google Scholar
- Regehr C, Hill J, Glancy GD: Individual predictors of traumatic reactions in firefighters. J Nerv Ment Dis 2000,188(6):333–339. 10.1097/00005053-200006000-00003PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Smith DL, Manning TS, Petruzzello SJ: Effect of strenuous live-fire drills on cardiovascular and psychological responses of recruit firefighters. Ergonomics 2001,44(3):244–254.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Wagner D, Heinrichs M, Ehlert U: Prevalence of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in German professional firefighters. Am J Psychiatry 1998,155(12):1727–1732.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Corneil W, Beaton R, Murphy S, Johnson C, Pike K: Exposure to traumatic incidents and prevalence of posttraumatic stress symptomatology in urban firefighters in two countries. J Occup Health Psychol 1999,4(2):131–141.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Tornling G, Gustavsson P, Hogstedt C: Mortality and cancer incidence in Stockholm fire fighters. Am J Ind Med 1994,25(2):219–228. 10.1002/ajim.4700250208PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Lundberg U: Psychophysiology of work: stress, gender, endocrine response, and work-related upper extremity disorders. Am J Ind Med 2002,41(5):383–392. 10.1002/ajim.10038PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Irie M, Asami S, Nagata S, Miyata M, Kasai H: Relationships between perceived workload, stress and oxidative DNA damage. Int Arch Occup Environ Health 2001,74(2):153–157. 10.1007/s004200000209PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Scott AJ: Shift work and health. Prim Care 2000,27(4):1057–1079. 10.1016/S0095-4543(05)70189-5PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Bos J, Mol E, Visser B, Frings-Dresen M: Risk of health complaints and disabilities among Dutch firefighters. Int Arch Occup Environ Health 2004,77(6):373–382.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kawada T, Ooya M: Workload and health complaints in overtime workers: a survey. Arch Med Res 2005,36(5):594–597. 10.1016/j.arcmed.2005.03.048PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Saijo Y, Ueno T, Hashimoto Y: Job stress and depressive symptoms among Japanese firefighters. Am J Ind Med 2007,50(6):470–480. 10.1002/ajim.20460PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kim JT: An analytic study on separation determinants of fireman in Pusan. Master’s Dissertation. Pusan: Graduate School of Management, Pusan National University; 1991. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Yoo IS, Kwon SS: The present activity and job satisfaction of 119 rescuer. J Korean Soc Emerg Med 1998,9(2):207–219. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Cho KY: A study on the job satisfaction of fire officials. Master’s Dissertation. Jinju: Graduate School of Public & Business Administration, Gyeongsang University; 1998. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Dong CB: A study on duty performance of 119 rescuers. Master’s Dissertation. Seoul: Graduate School of Public Administration, Kyung Hee University; 2000. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Park DH: A study on the prevention of safety accidents for firefighters in Korea. Master’s Dissertation. Gwangju: Graduate School of Public Administration, Chonnam National University; 2003. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Kang SK, Kim W: Work-related musculoskeletal disorders in firefighters. Korean Med Assoc 2008,5(12):1111–1117. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Kim JM, Suh BS, Kim DI, Kim WS, Cho HS, Kwon J, Yoon DY, Kim JI, Roh YM, Jung KY, Kim JW: The study for musculoskeletal symptoms and job stress in firemen. J Korean Soc Occup Environ Hyg 2007,17(2):111–119. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Saunders JB, Aasland OG, Babor TF, de la Fuente JR, Grant M: Development of the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT): WHO Collaborative Project on Early Detection of Persons with Harmful Alcohol Consumption II. Addiction 1993,88(6):791–804. 10.1111/j.1360-0443.1993.tb02093.xPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Babor TF, De La Fuente JR, Saunders J, Grant M: The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test: Guidelines for Use in the Primary Health Care. No 894 edition. Geneva: WHO Publication; 1989.Google Scholar
- Chang SJ: Standardization of job stress measurement scale for Korean employee. Incheon. Korea: OSHRI, Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency; 2004:17–41. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Cho MJ, Kim KH: Diagnostic validity of the CES-D(Korean version) in the assessment of the DSM-III-R major depression. J Korean Neuropsychiatr Assoc 1993,32(3):381–399. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency: Guideline of harmful factors survey for musculoskeletal overloading works(KOSAH GUIDE H-9–2011). 2013. . [cited May 2013]. http://www.isafety.co.kr/html/law/pdf/h-09–2012.pdf Google Scholar
- Kim DS, Moon MK, Kim KS: A Survey of musculoskeletal symptoms & risk factors for the 119 emergency medical services (EMS) activities. J Ergon Soc Korea 2010,29(2):211–216. Korean 10.5143/JESK.2010.29.2.211Google Scholar
- Laursen B, Ekner D, Simonsen EB, Voigt M, Sjogaard G: Kinetics and energetics during uphill and downhill carrying of different weights. Appl Ergon 2000,31(2):159–166. 10.1016/S0003-6870(99)00036-8PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Nuwayhid IA, Stewart W, Johnson JV: Work activities and the onset of first-time low back pain among New York City fire fighters. Am J Epidemiol 1993,137(5):539–548.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Bonde JP, Mikkelsen S, Andersen JH, Fallentin N, Baelum J, Svendsen SW, Thomsen JF, Frost P, Kaergaard A: Understanding work related musculoskeletal pain: does repetitive work cause stress symptoms? Occup Environ Med 2005,62(1):41–48. 10.1136/oem.2003.011296PubMed CentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Malchaire JB, Roquelaure Y, Cock N, Piette A, Vergracht S, Chiron H: Musculoskeletal complaints, functional capacity, personality and psychosocial factors. Int Arch Occup Environ Health 2001,74(8):549–557.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kim YH, Kim YT, Sun BY, Koh SB: Occupational Stress and Management Programs of Korean Female Service Professionals. Seoul: Korean Womens Development Institutes; 2006. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Hill J, Lewis M, Papageorgiou AC, Dziedzic K, Croft P: Predicting persistent neck pain: a 1-year follow-up of a population cohort. Spine 2004,29(15):1648–1654. 10.1097/01.BRS.0000132307.06321.3CPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Bongers PM, de Winter CR, Kompier MAJ, Hidebrandt VH: Psychosocial factors at work and musculoskeletal disease. Scand J Work Environ Health 1993,19(5):297–312. 10.5271/sjweh.1470PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Leroux I, Brisson C, Montreuil S: Job strain and neck-shoulder symptoms: a prevalence study of women and men white-collar workers. Occup Med 2005,56(2):102–109. 10.1093/occmed/kqj005Google Scholar
- Lee DH, Jeon HJ, Shin DH, Chung IS, Lee MY: Association between job stress and the Minnesota multiphasic personality inventory in firefighters. Korean J Occup Environ Med 2009,21(4):324–336.Google Scholar
- Ha J, Kim DI, Seo BS, Kim WS, Ryu S, Kim SG: Jobstress and psychosocial stress among firefighters. Korean J Occup Environ Med 2008,20(2):104–111. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Yoon SH, Choi SJ, Shin DH, Chung IS, Ha JS: Job stressors in subway workers and firemen. Korean J Occup Environ Med 2007,19(3):179–186. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Ariens GA, Bongers PM, Douwes M, Miedema MC, Hoogendoorn WE, van der Wal G, Bouter LM, van Mechelen W: Are neck flexion, neck rotation, and sitting at work risk factors for neck pain? Results of a prospectivecohort study. Occup Environ Med 2001,58(3):200–207. 10.1136/oem.58.3.200PubMed CentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Leroyer A, Edme JL, Vaxevanoglou X, Buisset C, Laurent P, Desobry P, Frimat P: Neck, shoulder, and hand and wrist pain among administrative employees: relation to work-time organization and psychosocial factors at work. J Occup Environ Med 2006,48(3):326–333. 10.1097/01.jom.0000196058.94482.99PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Lim HH: Job stress and depression of male industry workers. Master’s Dissertation. Soowon: Graduate School of Public Health, Ajou University; 2007. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Kim SY, Chang SJ, Kim HR, Rho JH: A study on the relationship between emotional labor and depressive symptoms among Korean industrial service employees. Korean J Occup Environ Med 2002,14(3):227–235. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Elinson L, Houck P, Marcus SC, Pincus HA: Depression and the ability to work. Psychiatr Serv 2004,55(1):29–34. 10.1176/appi.ps.55.1.29PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Carroll LJ, Cassidy JD, Cote P: Depression as a risk factor for onset of an episode of troublesome neck and low back pain. Pain 2004,107(1–2):134–139.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Myong JP, Yim HW, Kim HR, Chae JM, Jung YK, Park JI: Depression symptom features of an fire-station workers by job. Korean J Occup Health 2007,46(3):85–94. KoreanGoogle Scholar
- Szubert Z, Sobala W: Health reason for firefighter to leave their job. Med Pr 2002,53(4):291–298.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Ostergren PO, Hanson BS, Balogh I, Ektor-Andersen J, Isacsson A, Orbaek P, Winkel J, Isacsson SO: Incidence of shoulder and neck pain in a working population: effect modification between mechanical and psychosocial exposures at work? Results from a one year follow up of the Malmo shoulder and neck study cohort. J Epidemiol Community Health 2005,59(9):721–728. 10.1136/jech.2005.034801PubMed CentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.