Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most common work-related ailments. Throughout Europe they affect millions of workers and cost employers billions of euros. Tackling MSDs helps improve the lives of workers, but it also makes good business sense.
Musculoskeletal disorders usually affect the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs, but lower limbs can also be affected. They cover any damage or disorder of the joints or other tissues. Health problems range from minor aches and pains to more serious medical conditions requiring time off or medical treatment. In more chronic cases, they can even lead to disability and the need to give up work.
The two main groups of MSDs are back pain/injuries and work-related upper limb disorders (commonly known as ‘repetitive strain injuries’).
Causes of MSDs
Most work-related MSDs develop over time. There is usually no single cause of MSDs; various factors often work in combination. Physical causes and organisational risk factors include:
- Handling loads, especially when bending and twisting
- Repetitive or forceful movements
- Awkward and static postures
- Vibration, poor lighting or cold working environments
- Fast-paced work
- Prolonged sitting or standing in the same position
There is growing evidence linking MSDs with psychosocial risk factors (especially when combined with physical risks), including:
- High demand of work or low autonomy
- Low job satisfaction
There is no single solution, and expert advice may occasionally be needed for unusual or serious problems. However, many solutions are straightforward and inexpensive, for example providing a trolley to assist with handling goods or changing the position of items on a desk.
To tackle MSDs, employers should use a combination of:
- Risk assessment: take a holistic approach, assessing and addressing the full range of causes (see above)
- Employee participation: include staff and their representatives in discussions on possible problems and solutions
Read more about preventing work-related MSDs.
Preventive actions could include changes to:
- Workplace layout: adapt the layout to improve working postures
- Equipment: make sure it is ergonomically designed and suitable for tasks
- Workers: improve risk awareness, provide training in good work methods
- Tasks: change working methods or tools
- Management: plan work to avoid repetitive work or prolonged work in poor postures. Plan rest breaks, rotate jobs or reallocate work
- Organisational factors: develop an MSD policy
Health monitoring, health promotion and rehabilitation and reintegration of workers already suffering from MSDs also need to be considered in the management approach to MSDs.
European directives, regulations of Member States and good practice guidelines already recognise the importance of preventing MSDs. Relevant directives include the general OSH ‘Framework’ directive and the directives covering the following topics: the manual handling of loads, work equipment, minimum standards for work places and work with (computer) display screens.
In 2007, the European Commission ran a consultation on possible Community actions, including new legislation. Possible plans were suspended pending a review of EU directives in 2014-15. MSDs are a a recognised priority by the EU Member States and European Social partners.
EU-OSHA monitors the incidence, causes and prevention of MSDs. EU-OSHA also supports the sharing of good practices.