Musculoskeletal problems can lead to early retirement from work, affect the mental health of employees and can considerably cost companies. There are around 1.71 billion people worldwide with musculoskeletal conditions according to Global Burden of Disease (GBD). The employer is legally obliged to provide a healthy and safe workplace for the employees, but sometimes with all the safety measures in place, unfortunate events can happen.
What are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)? What are the actions to put in place for MSD prevention?
Workplace Musculoskeletal Disorders
What are the Work-related MSDs?
Workplace MSDs are painful disorders of muscles, joints, nerves, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. These MSDs can affect the upper limbs (the neck, shoulders and wrists), the lower limbs (the knees) and of course the back.
Work-related MSDs are not specific to a type of industry, they concern all sectors and occupations and they are the most common health problem in the workplace around the world.
The most common MSDs in the workplace are:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Rotator cuff injuries (shoulders)
- Epicondylitis (elbows)
- Trigger finger
- Muscle strains and low back injuries.
MSD statistical data
In Europe, in 2015, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work issued a report about Work-Related MSDs. It showed that backache was the leading MSD with around 44% of the cases followed by muscular pain in the shoulders, neck and upper limbs at 42% and finally muscular pains in lower limbs at 29%. This data was recorded for 12 months.
These results were similar in Great Britain in 2021, where the same type of recorded MSDs and percentages were observed among workers.
In both reports, other similarities were found. The likelihood of work-related MSDs increases with age.
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What are the causes of MSDs?
MSDs’ Occupational causes
MSDs are the most reported occupational health problems in Europe. MSDs can happen when our bodies are weak or weakened due to a certain activity done wrong. They can happen at home doing private activities (gardening, taking care of your kids, etc.). However, we will be concentrating on work-related MSDs, which are usually the result of occupational activity and the working environment.
MSDs can result from many factors related to a certain occupational activity. The factors can be related to production processes, excessive work overload, and tasks requiring physical exertion, and these causes can be amplified by the high age of employees and their health status. In some cases, the consequences of MSDs are not directly observed and it may take some time, even years before any symptoms are observed. MSDs left untreated can lead to serious health problems, and can cost even more in terms of economy for companies.
There are numerous causes for MSDs at work, especially when a certain activity is done repeatedly, or always demands a certain physical effort. However, there are many risk factors related to MSDs prevalence.
MSDs risk factors
3 risk factors can lead to MSDs and their prevalence.
Physical factor. This factor is also known as a biomechanical risk factor that includes hazards and risks related to the job itself, such as vibrations from equipment and prolonged computer work, and postures, such as heavy lifting, moving people, working in tiring positions, repetitive movements etc.
Environmental factor. This factor can be directly related to the working conditions of employees, and combined with the physical factor the prevalence of MSDs can be important. The environmental factor is often related to working in low temperatures, noise at work, unfit lightning, etc.
Organisational and psychosocial factors. These two factors are closely related because it is usually based on the perception of the employee on the work’s organisation and conditions. An employee can be exposed to anxiety, stress, fatigue and complacency, which are all factors that eventually lead to MSDs. And usually, they are the reason for the prevalence of MSDs on an individual level. In addition, the working conditions, working hours, the occupational activity itself, and deadlines, in other words, the organisational factor can greatly influence the psychosocial factor by the satisfactory rate of the employee, feeling less autonomous and not supported by the organisation, etc. In addition, the psychosocial factor can also depend, in some cases on the gender, age and situation of the employee.
The consequences of MSDs
MSDs have a tremendous economic impact on companies. On a European level, the total costs can not really be measured, but the report published by EU-OSHA mentions that in “Germany MSDs accounted for 17.2 billion Euros in loss of production in 2016”. In addition, absenteeism rates in the EU were around 53% due to MSDs in 2015, which is an alarming rate.
Moreover, having a high rate of MSDs reporting incidents can affect the employees' retention rate. Having a low retention rate can make the employee and newcomers insecure in their occupational activity, which is a psychosocial factor for the prevalence of MSDs.
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Preventive measures to reduce MSDs
Every employer is legally obliged to provide a healthy, secure and safe workplace for the employees. Every country has legal obligations and requirements for workplace safety, and everyone must comply with them.
In Europe, the “OSH Framework Directive” 89/391/EEC introduces the measures to implement and improve the safety and health of employees. Based on the OSH Framework Directive, other directives were developed, especially to limit MSDs at work, such as:
- Directive 90/269/EEC - manual handling of loads
- Directive 90/270/EEC - display screen equipment
- Directive 2009/104/EC - use of work equipment
MSDs prevention is no different from a normal risk or hazard that should be mitigated. To prevent MSDs a risk assessment can be a great tool. And afterwards, measures and actions should be put in place to avoid the prevalence of MSDs. In addition, the implementation of an ergonomic process can be very efficient to reduce the risk of MSDs.
Here are some examples of actions for MSDs prevention:
- Always update and review the risk assessment: mitigate the risk factor of MSDs.
- Make sure that all the equipment is ergonomic and carefully adapted for the tasks. Some tools can help with manual handling to avoid MSDs, which can be easily applied and integrated into occupational activities. And, of course, PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) should never be forgotten as they play an important role in protecting employees.
- Adapt the working posture via exoskeleton suits and tools to reduce the physical pressure on the human body.
- Develop an MSD awareness policy. Raising awareness and training employees to have the right attitude and posture in their workplace is important to limit the prevalence of MSDs. Involving the stakeholders via their feedback on their working conditions to always keep adapting their working posts accordingly is also important to mitigate the risk factors of MSDs. Safety conversations, videos and fliers about MSDs are all important to the contribution of limiting the risks of MSDs.
- Making the employees aware and always involved in any decision-making is an important boost to their morale and they feel more invested in their work, improving their Quality of working life (QWL).
- Install break time in the workplace. The human brain needs to rest too. By doing so, the employees will feel less stressed, and job rotations on different working posts (according to the employees' skills) can be a great measure to limit the risk factor of MSDs.
The employer should always care about the safety of their employees. Implementing all the necessary measures and actions is important, but monitoring them and making sure that all employees are complying with these requirements and actions is important to reduce the risk factors of MSDs. In a workplace where every piece of equipment and tool is well designed, job rotations are assured, employees are well trained and raising awareness of best practices is permanent, all this can greatly reduce the risks of MSDs.
MSDs are the most reported incident in the workplace and should never be left untreated to avoid greater injuries. Implementing safety measures and actions is essential to limit the risk factors of MSDs but also raising awareness is as important. Employees tend to forget in their daily routines, sometimes, the best practices to avoid MSDs. The employees’ concerns about their work posts or any working conditions should always be heard and recorded by their managers and the EHS department. With all the safety measures in place and with all the raising awareness campaigns, it is always up to the employee to carefully protect themselves from MSDs too.
To go further:
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