The health and safety of employees is a key part of a successful business, but in many industries work activities pose a risk of employees developing aches, pains and discomfort, also known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
MSDs account for 35% of all work-related ill-health in Britain, with 469,000 workers suffering from work-related MSDs, and 6.6 million working days lost to MSDs in 2017/18. The most commonly affected area are the upper limbs and neck (42%), closely followed by the back (40%); lower limb disorders account for 18% of work-related MSDs1.
Although people may experience MSDs for non-work related reasons (e.g. a health condition, or activities outside of work), employers have a duty to ensure that the risk of developing an MSD through work activities is as low as is reasonably practicable. Risk factors causing MSDs can be found in virtually every workplace, from agriculture and construction to manufacturing and healthcare. The risk factors for work-related MSDs are well known; MSDs are associated with work that involves:
In general, it is a combination of these factors that gives rise to the development of MSDs; therefore, it may be necessary to tackle a number of risk factors at the workplace to reduce the risk of MSDs.
Ergonomics – the application of scientific knowledge to ensure that designs complement the strengths and abilities of people and prevent excessive demands on them – can help address workplace MSD risks. Rather than expecting people to adapt to a design that forces them to work in an uncomfortable or stressful way, applying ergonomics can help to understand how a workplace can be designed to suit those who use it.
Getting ergonomics right to prevent MSDs will involve having a good understanding of the variety of tasks that are done in the workplace, and the way they are actually done (which may be different to the intended way); the tools and equipment that are used in the tasks; the impact of the environment (lighting, noise, temperature, floor surfaces etc.) on the work / worker; and the abilities and physical characteristics of the workers. In gaining this understanding, you may need to take time to observe tasks, discuss issues with workers, as well as explore different possible options for reducing risk. An assessment of risks, based on known risk factors, can highlight where action should be taken to reduce these risks. The HSE have risk assessment tools that can help you with this (see resources).
Once you’ve identified the risk factors, you can take measures to reduce the risk through better design, repositioning of equipment, different tools, work organisation etc. Improving the ergonomic design of your work or workplace needn’t be expensive. Actions to reduce risk may be simple, such as setting workstations at a suitable height for the range of staff and the work undertaken; ensuring suitable adjustability is available in the chairs, desks, and equipment provided (which may require close liaison with the purchasing department); ensuring appropriate foot support, if required; providing tools that fit the range of sizes of users’ hands well; removing or reducing force required (e.g. by mechanising a process); providing anti-fatigue insoles or matting; ensuring work is organised so that staff are able to avoid long periods undertaking highly repetitive movements. Links to successful examples are given in the resources below.
It is also important to consider the information and training needs of workers in relation to the task, tools and equipment, and the importance of breaks / changes in activity. Although providing suitable equipment and furniture can help prevent MSDs, the users’ interaction with the equipment is equally important; it is no benefit to provide a sit-stand desk if the user always sits at it! And as another example, if you are not able to touch type, an alternative keyboard is not going to mean that you don’t have to look at it when keying (which obviously can strain your neck). So training and information are also important to ensure workers have the skills, knowledge and awareness of how to use the equipment and furniture provided.
Although organisations can take many measures to reduce the risk of MSDs, it isn’t possible to prevent all MSDs. So, alongside a prevention programme, a system which encourages early reporting of any symptoms (so that measures can be taken to support the worker and reduce risk), proper treatment and suitable rehabilitation is also essential. Further information on this is available on the HSE’s website.
The factors that pose a risk of MSDs are not difficult to identify, and much can be done – often without significant cost – to ensure that the design of your workplace helps your employees work comfortably.
In closing, this year RoSPA’s annual October campaign (#OSHtober) will raise awareness of the dangers associated with moving and handling (specifically around MSDs) with a ‘back’ to basics overview covering best practice, legal compliance and improved health.
As part of this we’re giving away a free ‘Supporters pack’ which includes a wealth of free content. Not only that, when you sign-up to our ‘Supporters pack’ you’ll be entered into our prize draw for either a free Manual Handling Trainers or Safer People Handling Trainers or Display Screen Equipment course worth up to £1000.* To enter this competition all you have to do is complete the online questionnaire here.
Please get involved in sharing your experiences by using the hashtag #OSHtober.
Margaret Hanson – BSc (Hons) C.ErgHF FIEHF, CMIOSH
Chartered Ergonomist & Human Factors Specialist
1 HSE – Work related musculoskeletal disorders in Great Britain (WRMSDs), 2018 http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/msd.pdf