Work-related health statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal that musculoskeletal disorders are the second highest cause of ill health in Great Britain.

  • 498,000 workers suffered from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (new or longstanding), out of a total of 1,354,000 work-related illnesses. That is to say 37% of all ill-health cases were attributed to musculoskeletal disorders – a rate of 1,490 cases per 100,000 workers.
  • 6.9 million working days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders, or 29% of all working days lost due to work related ill health – an average of 14 days lost for each case. Within the 6.9 million days lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders:
  • Upper limb disorders accounted for around 2.6 million days lost.
  • Back disorders around 2.8 million days lost.
  • Lower limb disorders 1.5 million days lost.

What are musculoskeletal disorders?

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) cover a variety of strain, sprain, and overuse problems that affect the body’s muscles, joints and nerves. The resulting ache, pain and discomfort includes everything from backache and slipped discs to upper limb disorders, inflammation of tendons, numbness, swelling and tingling in the hands and wrists.

The conditions are often caused or made worse by work activities and develop over time. While MSDs can affect muscles, joints and tendons in all parts of the body, the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs are particularly at risk.

MSDs can be periodic or chronic in duration and can progress from mild to severe. MSDs develop in occupational settings due to the day-to-day physical tasks that workers carry out.

Risk factors

MSDs are associated with various risk factors and work patterns, including:

Uncomfortable working positions, particularly fixed or constrained body positions.
Continual repetitive movements.
Heavy lifting or bending and twisting.
Exerting too much force (force concentrated on small parts of the body, such as the hands or wrists).
Insufficient recovery between movements (working too long without a break, or repeating actions too frequently).
An adverse working environment (hot or cold).
Psychosocial factors (high job demands, time pressures and lack of control).
Not receiving or acting on reports of symptoms quickly enough.

Manual handling, lifting and carrying and keyboard work are some of the prime causes in the development of work-related MSDs, particularly back pain. Risk factors causing MSDs are found in virtually every workplace across a diverse range of sectors – from waste and recycling, public administration, finance, agriculture, construction, health services to logistics and transport.

A proactive approach should be taken to preventing MSDs, reducing the risk to employees and the burden on businesses from working days lost – not to mention costly fines or legal action.

What the law says

Several pieces of legislation attach legal responsibilities on employers in relation to musculoskeletal disorders.

The main responsibility for employers is to, so far as is “reasonably practicable”, protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and others who might be affected by what they do, as required by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Other health and safety laws are particularly relevant to dealing with MSDs in the workplace, including:

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

These require all employers assess the risks to the health and safety of their employees while at work.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992.

These require employers to carry out a risk assessment on all manual handling tasks that pose an injury risk.

Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992.

Users of display screen equipment (DSE) may get aches and pains, such as back pain. The regulations set out what needs to be done if employees habitually use DSE.

Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005.

Regular long-term exposure to whole-body vibration is associated with back pain. These regulations require action be taken to protect people against risk arising from exposure to vibration at work.

Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.

These cover a wide range of basic health, safety and welfare issues. The regulations apply to most workplaces.

Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) 1998.

These require the risks to health and safety arising from equipment used at work to be assessed, prevented or controlled.

Recognising problems

MSD symptoms may suddenly occur or their onset may be gradual, often with initial tingling, then slight swelling or soreness, which may persist and gradually worsen.

Indicators of musculoskeletal problems in the workplace include:

  • Increased sickness absence, accident and injury reports.
  • Reports of pain and discomfort from workers or reports on their behalf from safety/union representatives.
  • Workers wearing splints, bandages or back support.
  • Slow motivation and dissatisfaction among workers – not wanting to do certain tasks.
  • Workers adapting their own equipment.

What precautionary measures can be taken?

While the extent and severity of MSDs might be daunting, the good news is that managing workers’ risks effectively can significantly reduce the risk of such conditions developing. Indeed, as an employer, there are a variety of precautionary controls you can take to reduce the risk of MSDs at work.

What’s appropriate will depend on the sort of work your employees do and what’s “reasonably practicable”. It may not be possible to prevent all MSD cases, but there are practical steps you can take to help prevent symptoms occurring or getting worse.

Top tips for mitigating MSD risk in your workplace

1. Assess

The first step in the fight against MSDs is to assess all of the MSD risks that workers’ tasks generate. You must then try to remove or reduce as many of these risks as possible by, for example, redesigning the tasks, providing mechanical aids, introducing breaks or job rotation.

When considering the risks, potential precautions and/or solutions, make sure you consult your workforce as they often have first hand knowledge of the risks associated with specific tasks. Ask workers whether their activities caused the problem and whether they can identify what specific task caused the pain. Working with staff to identify aspects of their job that cause or aggravate their complaints will allow the condition to be managed.

2. Monitor

Once you’ve implemented your precautionary controls, you will need to monitor their effectiveness.

Make sure that your measures haven’t introduced new risks.

Keep in mind that it may be some time before the changes take effect and for employee to notice symptoms have subsided. Gathering information about symptoms over a period of time will help to identify whether matters are improving or worsening. Monitoring the effect of your control measures is therefore vital.

Again, be sure to consult employees so that they are aware of and understand monitoring procedures are in place to help protect their health and that they know their part in them.

Encourage workers to report symptoms as early as possible. If workers do report symptoms, consider referral to an occupational health provider or suggest they see their GP to get treatment.

3. Review

Reviewing the results of monitoring provides an opportunity to look at the overall performance of your system of controls and may help to identify individual susceptible workers. Review should be considered an integral part of your risk management process.

An effective review will:

Provide an opportunity to learn from your experience of managing risk factors, signs and symptoms.
Help you to consider whether your intervention is effective.
Determine whether risks have been controlled where reasonably practicable.
Provide an opportunity to assess whether new controls need to be introduced.

If it looks like your controls may be failing, you should review your risk assessments accordingly.

Where you should focus your attention

Research has identified six key areas in successfully dealing with MSDs at work:

  • Senior management commitment;
  • Worker involvement;
  • Risk assessment;
  • Control measures;
  • Training; and
  • Medical management.

Remember, everyone is different; MSD problems can be specific to an individual, so cases will need to be dealt with on an individual basis. You may need to consider:

  • If a task is causing or contributing to a MSD, the worker stopping that task for a time.
  • Temporarily modifying their duties to assist recovery.
  • Putting systems in place to help workers return to work.

Fortunately, people with MSDs usually completely recover if the problem is recognised early enough and treated appropriately.

The HSE has produced a number of publications that may help with your choice of precautions, some of which are industry specific.

One of your legally-required competent persons

How do you keep on top of your health and safety responsibilities? If you’re not confident in your current practices or simply don’t have the time to manage all aspects of health and safety internally, talk to us about unlimited, fixed-fee Health & Safety support for your organisation.

Our personalised service includes dedicated assistance from a named Health & Safety Consultant, annual General Risk Assessments of your premises, a robust Health & Safety Policy and Health & Safety Handbook tailored to your environment, and award-winning risk management software, and much more.

If you require specific support with managing MSDs, we can provide practical advice on safeguarding your tasks and environment to reduce risk and keep you compliant. We also offer a range of interactive e-Learning courses, including DSE and manual handling, plus occupational health and wellbeing services provided by qualified occupational health physicians and nurses.

To talk through your specific requirements and the range of support available, call 0345 226 8393 to speak with one of our friendly team.

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