A staggering 44% of all work-related illnesses in the UK are due to musculoskeletal disorders . Absence from work due to these disorders not only causes discomfort for the sufferer but also great financial loss for businesses globally.   It is estimated that people suffering from Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) in the UK take an average of 15.9 days off annually.  In the States, people with MSDs make up over 70 million doctors’ visits annually and, including hospital visits, that figure rises to 140 million visits.

What are Musculoskeletal Disorders?

Musculoskeletal Disorders include any injury to the joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments in the upper and lower limbs and the back.  Work related MSDs (WMSDs) are a group of disorders affecting the muscles, tendons and nerves.  These include uncomfortable conditions such as tendonitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, tension neck syndrome and thoracic outlet syndrome. Generally, MSDs in the workplace only include those conditions which gradually develop, not those which are caused by trauma.

So, most work-related MSDs are caused by overuse and therefore take time to develop.  They are often caused by repetitive and frequent movements or movements which place the body in an unusual or awkward position, which means they actually cause avoidable pain.

As the hands and arms are used most frequently, the most common MDSs are in the shoulders, neck, elbows, wrists and hands.  Work which involves constant use of the legs results in discomfort and stress on the hips, ankles, knees and legs.  Back problems are also common in jobs where lifting is part of a job.

More Risk Factors

Apart from the ergonomic risk factors such as repetition, organisations must look at individual risk factors such as poor work practices and poor fitness and health habits.  Poor work practices would include not being shown how to lift correctly.  Poor fitness and health habits would include smoking, excessive alcohol and a bad diet.  Included in health and fitness are those employees who don’t allow their bodies to rest and recover.  This leads to fatigue, which in turn causes musculoskeletal imbalance, which puts workers at risk from MSDs.

Prevention and Management

As mentioned above, the main cause of musculoskeletal problems is repetitive actions in the workplace. However, other factors are applied force, staying in the same position for a length of time and the actual speed of the work involved.  These factors, which cause avoidable pain and discomfort, can be changed by people rotating different jobs, changing the job, including some form of mechanisation, changing the layout of the workplace and looking at equipment design.

Employees need to be properly trained for each job they perform and there must be open dialogue between the employer and employee, so problems can be openly discussed.  Physical activity should be encouraged as regular physical exercise will not only improve overall health, it will also help prevent MSDs.

It’s often beneficial to ask for support from your Occupational Health (OH) service, HR department or experienced colleagues.  OH is highly effective in assessing and advising on musculoskeletal conditions and suggesting ways to help prevent discomfort and absence as a result.

Further Resources

Musculoskeletal disorders – HSE

Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorder Statistics (WRMSDs) in Great Britain 2016