Musculoskeletal disorders can affect muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and the blood system, and can include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, lower back pain and tension neck syndrome. They can be a major cause of loss of productivity in the workplace. In fact, musculoskeletal disorders are the main reason for long-term absence in both England (33%) and Wales (36%). Common areas of the body to be affected by musculoskeletal pain include the hands, wrists, elbows, neck, shoulders, lower back, hips, ankles and feet. Work activities which are frequent and repetitive (e.g. prolonged keyboard use), or activities with awkward postures, heavy lifting or physical strain can cause, or exacerbate, these conditions.
It isn’t necessarily the nature of a person’s movements that cause the musculoskeletal pain (they are often ordinary movements such as bending, straightening, gripping, holding, twisting, clenching and reaching). It is the fact that a person may make the same movements repetitively, often at speed and using force, and with no recovery time between movements that makes them hazardous. In some cases the person’s work may be poorly designed, which means that their work position or posture is awkward.
The most common symptom associated with musculoskeletal disorders is pain although some sufferers report joint stiffness, muscle tightness, ‘pins and needles’ and redness and swelling of the affected area. Musculoskeletal disorders can range from mild to severe and, as they are cumulative in nature, can be measured depending on the severity/longevity of the pain and the extent to which the pain affects a person’s ability to work:
|Aching/tiredness of the affected limb may occur during the work shift but disappears when the person stops working and does not affect the person’s ability to work.|
|Signs that the condition is progressing|
|Aching/tiredness occur early in the work shift and persist at night, and may make it difficult for the person to do repetitive work.|
|Aching, fatigue, and weakness continue constantly and the person may struggle to sleep and perform light duties.|
In order to limit the number of cases of musculoskeletal disorders, organisations should perform comprehensive risk assessments and ensure they comply with existing legislation and good practice guidance. Musculoskeletal disorders can cause acute symptoms, which may develop gradually and be cumulative, and can lead to loss of productivity, sickness absence and, potentially, occupational disability. Employees feeling any pain or discomfort should be encouraged to report it to their line manager, and any musculoskeletal pain should be discussed with GPs.
Fit for Work is designed to support people in work with health conditions and help with sickness absence, and the website offers a wealth of resources on work-related health issues.
 Source: Labour Force Survey, October 2010 – September 2013.