Musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders affect over 17 million people in the UK and are the second main cause of work-related ill health.
In 2021, almost 500,000 workers reported they were suffering from a work-related MSK disorder. As well as the effects of coronavirus being listed as a contributory factor, manual handling, awkward or tiring positions and keyboard work or repetitive action were estimated to be the main causes of work-related MSK disorders.
Workplace activities can aggravate or cause MSK conditions. This not only has a significant impact on employees’ health, it also reduces their ability to do their job effectively and in more serious cases can lead to sickness absences which have far-reaching implications for businesses.
What are musculoskeletal disorders and conditions?
Many of us will experience stiffness, aches or pains in our lives, particularly if we have recently taken part in strenuous activity, however MSK conditions occur when there is something wrong with our bones, joints and muscles.
Parts of the body most likely to be affected by MSK conditions are:
- lower back
- shoulders, forearms, wrists and hands, as well as the neck
- hips, legs, knees, ankles and feet.
MSK conditions may be due to an inflammatory disease, a congenital abnormality or an injury related to work and they can present themselves in a number of ways including: neck pain, shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica, osteoarthritis and tendinitis.
Impact of MSK conditions and work
The more obvious signs of an MSK condition is the pain, discomfort or stiffness a sufferer will experience. These symptoms can cause additional problems as a result of disturbed sleep, for example, which can make day-to-day activities including work-related tasks even harder to complete effectively, if at all.
Many sufferers of MSK conditions become frustrated if they experience prolonged stiffness and pain as it limits their ability to fulfil workplace and leisure activities as normal. In addition to the physical discomfort someone will feel, it can also affect their mental health as the stress of the condition and its impact on their ability to do their job can lead them to worry about the security of their employment.
It is an employer’s responsibility to protect their workers from the risks of MSK conditions being caused by or made worse by work. Risk factors that can contribute to MSK disorders can include:
- bending down or crouching
- lifting heavy items or loads
- pushing, pulling or dragging heavy loads
- stretching and twisting
- repetitive work, particularly using the same hand or arm action
- carrying out a task for a long time
- work with display screen equipment
- working with hand-held power tools for a long time
- driving heavy vehicles
- poor working environment (including temperature and lighting)
- poor work organisation (including work pressure, job demands and lack of work breaks).
The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to an increase in reported cases of MSK problems, not least due to the growth of homeworking which presents employers and employees with new challenges. Employers’ duties to protect their workers’ health are the same whether workers are in their own home or at a workstation in an office.
MSKs and posture: dos and don’ts
As well as workplace activities having an impact on the risk of developing or exacerbating MSK problems, so can the way in which people hold their body at any given time, referred to as their posture.
It can be a helpful exercise to educate workers on the common mistakes they may be making with their posture during the working day which could increase their risk of developing an MSK problem in the future. For example, depending on the nature of their job, it is not advisable for employees to:
- slouch in a chair
- lean on one leg
- carry loads on just one side which can lead to uneven hips
- round their shoulders
- cradle their phone between their shoulder and their ear.
It is advisable for workers to practise a good posture and also ensure they are moving enough throughout the day, particularly if their job is more sedentary in nature. To ensure a good posture, encourage workers to:
- stand with their shoulders back; tummy pulled in; feet, hips and shoulders in alignment; straight legs; looking directly ahead and keeping their head straight
- sit with both feet flat on the floor; ensuring knees are slightly lower than hips; shoulders are relaxed; looking directly ahead with their head straight.
Occupational health and MSK conditions
Employers carrying out regular risk assessments in their workplace and communicating with employees will help reduce the risks of MSK disorders.
In many cases employers also request ergonomic assessments for workers who may be at greater risk, which can include evaluating the nature of an individual’s role and the exact position of their workstation(s) – whether this is at a workplace or at an employee’s home – in order to produce practical and cost-effective solutions.
If you would like more information on ergonomic assessments, contact us via email: email@example.com or phone: 0121 601 4041.
Sources: HSE (2022); MSK Aware (2022); Highfield Qualifications (2021)