Christa Sedlatschek, Director at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work outlines how musculoskeletal disorders affect workplaces across Europe
Across Europe, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most common occupational safety and health (OSH) risks in the workplace. They are found across many sectors, including agriculture, construction, manufacturing, IT, public administration and education, to name but a few. Not only can they have serious impacts on workers’ health and lives, but they cost employers billions of euros owing to loss of productivity and have significant societal costs to European countries, such as worker compensation. Addressing MSDs is becoming increasingly important because of the ageing workforce and the need to keep workers healthy to enable them to work longer.
What are MSDs?
MSDs are impairments to bodily structures, such as muscles, joints and ligaments, and result from repeated exposure to high- or low-intensity loads over a long period of time. The health problems range from minor aches and pains and discomfort to more serious medical conditions, which could eventually lead to permanent disability and the need to give up work. They usually affect the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs, but the lower limbs can also be affected. The 2 main groups of MSDs are back pain/injuries and work-related upper limb disorders (commonly known as ‘repetitive strain injuries’).
As most MSDs develop over time, there is usually no single cause; various factors often work in combination. Work and the work environment can both cause and aggravate MSDs. Awkward postures, prolonged sitting or standing in the same position, handling loads and repetitive or forceful movements are just some of the physical causes of MSDs, all of which are largely dictated by the type of work a person does.
Organisational factors, such as fast-paced work, and aspects of the working environment such as vibration, poor lighting or extreme temperature, particularly the cold, can also be risk factors. What’s more, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that MSDs could be linked to psychosocial risk factors such as high demand for work, low autonomy and low job satisfaction.
Prevalence of risk factors
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work’s (EU-OSHA) European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) has made a significant contribution to the evidence base on OSH risks in general. By surveying businesses and organisations across Europe, EU-OSHA has been able to look at how OSH risks are managed, assess drivers and barriers to action in OSH management and determine the level of worker participation in OSH. MSDs, in particular, was one of the topics covered by the second wave of ESENER (ESENER-2; published in 2015 1). In the UK, there is a significant risk of MSDs throughout the working population. Nearly 60% of establishments in the UK reported that lifting or moving people or heavy loads is a risk factor in their workplace, over 50% reported repetitive hand or arm movements, and just under 45% reported tiring or painful positions (including sitting for long periods).
In addition, by monitoring and reporting on the incidence, causes and prevention of MSDs in Europe, EU-OSHA plays a critical role in collecting and disseminating information about MSDs. Its report ‘OSH in figures: Work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the EU – Facts and figures’ 2 presents an overview of the MSD situation in Europe, providing a solid evidence base for use by policymakers, actors at the organisation and sector levels, and researchers. It has also produced a variety of factsheets on MSDs, providing handy summaries of the topic and highlighting key findings (Work-related musculoskeletal disorders: Prevention report. A summary 3; Introduction to work-related musculoskeletal disorders 4; preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders 5).
So what is the solution?
Owing to the wide variety of causes, there is no single solution to the problem of MSDs. For those workers who already have MSDs, the aim is to retain their employability and, if necessary, reintegrate them into the workplace through rehabilitation. EU-OSHA’s report “Work-related musculoskeletal disorders: Back to work” 6 and factsheet 7 focuses on the retention, reintegration and rehabilitation of workers with MSDs.
But a preventive approach needs to be adopted to reduce the incidence of MSDs in Europe. The key to preventive approaches is to combine risk assessment with worker participation. Risk assessment should take a holistic approach, taking the full range of potential causes into account. And worker participation is essential, involving staff and their representatives in discussions about problems and possible solutions.
Although more unusual or serious problems may require expert advice, many solutions are easy to implement and inexpensive. Organisational and administrative interventions can include changes to working hours or the introduction of additional breaks. In some cases, technical interventions might be required, for example, ergonomic hand tools to reduce the workload on the back and upper limbs. Moreover, training on working methods could be used if behavioural changes are required. Overall, a combination of these types of interventions is usually the most effective method to preventing MSDs, and teaming this with a participatory approach, including workers in the process, is likely to have the most positive effect.
See EU-OSHA’s theme section on MSDs. See also the campaign Healthy Workplace for All Ages which promotes sustainable work and healthy ageing from the start of the working life.
For more information contact:
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work