A cross sectional survey of reported musculoskeletal pain, disorders, work volume and employment situation among sign language interpreters

Fischer, S., Woodcock, K. 2012. A cross sectional survey of reported musculoskeletal pain, disorders, work volume and employment situation among sign language interpreters. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 42, 335–340.

This research sought to determine the prevalence of pain and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among sign language interpreters registered with the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC). Additionally, we sought to measure weekly work volume (durations of exposure to interpreting) and employment situation (salaried or freelance) to understand if work volumes or employment situations impacted reported pain or MSD prevalence.

Over 68% of the AVLIC membership responded to the survey (314 respondents), and 38% of respondents reported being previously medically diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, bursitis, thoracic outlet syndrome or tendonitis. At the time of filling out the survey 25% of interpreters reported feeling pain at a level greater than 3 on a 10-point visual-analog scale. Most respondents identified the neck, upper back, and right upper limb as being the location of the pain. In terms of work volume, interpreters working primarily in salaried roles worked significantly more (24.7 9.5 h per week) than those working primarily in freelance roles (21.7 10.9); however there was no difference in pain or MSD reporting between the two groups. These results support previous research identifying that sign language interpreters are at an elevated risk of musculoskeletal problems. In addition, these findings demonstrate that both freelance and salaried interpreters are equally at risk, although salaried interpreters are exposed to a greater weekly dose of interpreting. Therefore intervention efforts should focus on factors present in both employment situations, such as total weekly exposure time or work-rest relationships.

Relevance to industry: Intervention is needed to help curb the pronounced MSD rates among sign language interpreters. Administrative controls to manage weekly exposures and work-rest ratios (similar to little league pitchers) may be beneficial for both salaried and freelance interpreters.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (https://thrilllab.blog.ryerson.ca), and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.