How the physical workplace can help manage musculoskeletal disorders


Need to know:

  • Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) represent a large proportion of working days lost to ill health.
  • Employers can help staff make adjustments to the physical workspace to prevent and manage MSDs.
  • Movement is an important factor in managing MSDs.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can represent a huge burden to UK employers: the latest Labour force survey published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in October 2015, found that work-related MSDs in 2014/15 accounted for 44% of all incidences of work-related illnesses. According to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s )Work-related musculoskeletal disorder statistics, also published in October 2015, this equates to an estimated 9.5 million lost working days.

MSD refers to injuries that affect muscles, joints and tendons in any part of the body. These can develop over time, and progress from mild to severe disorders, and can also result from an injury sustained in a work-related accident. MSDs are more prevalent in industries where roles require a lot of physical work; for example, lifting and carrying mail bags in the postal industry. However, even in industries that might have roles considered to be sedentary, MSDs can be commonplace.

MSDs can impact upon on an employer’s private medical insurance scheme. Dr Doug Wright, medical director at Aviva UK Health, explains that MSDs form a large part of claims on employer-funded PMI schemes. “Typically around a third of spend is associated with [MSDs]. While most aren’t necessarily caused by things happening in the workplace, clearly if [an employee] has an MSD, it will impact their work and how [they] need to work a bit differently to allow them to be effective and recuperate from treatment properly.”

Prevention and management

Employers can play a key role in preventing and managing MSDs by ensuring workplaces are properly set up, and that employees are properly informed. Catherine Albert, director at occupational health provider WorkFuture, and a chartered ergonomist and physiotherapist, explains that office workers can have significant MSD problems. “Quite a percentage of people who work at a computer, probably as many as 60 or 70% because they’re doing it for such a long period of their time, will have problems at some stage in their lives.”

An employer should first plan a strategy of how it wishes to use the physical workplace to address MSDs. Jan Vickery, head of musculoskeletal services at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “For employers, the most important thing is to think about what they want to do; do they want to focus on prevention, do they want to focus on assessment, management and monitoring, and how do they do that?”

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment (DSE)) Regulations 1992 were introduced to help employees working in front of DSE and sought to address the high proportion of aches, pains and eye discomfort experienced by these members of staff. The regulations provide a starting point for employers looking to address MSDs, because they brought in the importance of risk assessments for DSE users.

“These risk assessments are supposed to encourage an employer to make certain that [it has] provided the minimum standard of equipment for employees to work at: the type of chair [it has] provided, adjustments, a suitable keyboard, monitor and mouse,” explains Albert.

However, if employees are not provided with the proper training and information, they may not know how to adjust their chairs, for example, or create a workplace that does not put strain on them.

“[Employers] don’t want to just provide individuals with equipment or change workspaces in a way that is not specific to them, because then they have a potential duty-of-care issue,” adds Vickery. “The duty of care, required through health and safety legislation, is to focus on that individual assessment and make that gateway into the individual having any changes.

Workplace gadgets

A popular request from employees is for the latest technology that they believe will help to relieve aches and pains, but without actually carrying out any assessment first. “One of the most common requests is for the latest ‘gadgety’ mouse because somebody has pins and needles,” says Vickery. “Quite often, that device will make things worse; that’s why it is important to make sure things aren’t just ‘dolled out’ and that proper assessments are done before spending and providing equipment, and before any changes are made.”

Standing desks are also becoming commonplace in offices, but these can come with little advice on how often an employee should stand, or how high the desk should be. This equipment could make an employee’s problem worse if used incorrectly, so it is crucial that any changes are made with the right education and training.

Encourage physical activity

The key areas of concern with MSDs are back, neck and spine problems, so employers should help people to do the right exercise to both get them better and to keep them well in the work environment, explains Aviva UK Health’s Wright. “Allow them to change how they work, make sure they are fit for being at work, and to and from work,” he explains.

An employer should help employees by looking at specific tasks and specific environments rather than taking a broad-brush approach to try and make everyone do the same thing, but there are some generalisations they can make, says Katherine Cran, physiotherapist at Bupa. “[Employers] can encourage employees to move around and use different positions,” she says. “Things such as walking meetings and standing desks are becoming more fashionable because they mean [staff] can move around during the day.

“Also, encourage employees to take care of themselves with things such as [bikes-for-work] schemes, or having gyms onsite so they can do classes at lunchtime.”

Just as key is that employers are training their staff to assess their own workstation and working environment to ensure they are aware of the importance of movement and preventing prolonged postures.

Stephen Barraclough

Viewpoint: Ergonomics can help employees thrive

Progressive employers will give as much thought to factors within an office environment that enable individuals to be the best they can be as they will to acquiring the best building on the best possible terms. Why? Because even the most high-tech or contemporary environment will be sterile in terms of creativity, teamwork and vibrancy if employers fail to recognise the factors that can help employees excel, and stay. Retaining good people is good business.

Ergonomists, sometimes also called human factors specialists, have long been in the business of ‘designing for people’, that is, recognising that by taking into account the capabilities of each individual can have a significant impact on the work that someone can do, and the ease and joy with which that work can be done. After all, musculoskeletal disorders such as muscle, back or joint problems are, for example, the single largest cause of work absence in Scotland: every year over one million people visit a doctor with a musculoskeletal disorder.

Working environments at which people can sit, stand, flex, move around, enjoy natural daylight and retain personal workspace while, at the same time, remaining integrated into a team are key factors in retaining and growing organisational capability.

Ergonomics, by applying scientific principles to the environments in which we live, work and play helps people contribute, thrive and enjoy their surroundings and to make the most of their potential.

Stephen Barraclough is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors