Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) | Wessex Health and Safety

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

HSE’s main focus is on health and safety issues related to pain and disorders caused by the work a person does, whether this occurs in the neck, shoulders and arms (Upper Limbs), back, or hips, knees and ankles and feet (Lower Limbs). These pages also cover manual handling and the impact of using display screen equipment.

Key messages about MSDs are:

  • you can do things to prevent or minimise MSDs;
  • the prevention measures are cost effective;
  • you cannot prevent all MSDs, so early reporting of symptoms, proper treatment and suitable rehabilitation is essential.

Risk factors causing MSDs can be found in virtually every workplace from commerce to agriculture, health services to construction.

Back pain

Most people have back pain at some time. Usually the pain is not caused by anything serious and it settles within a matter of days or weeks.

Medical evidence from the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine focuses on three key messages for sufferers to deal with back pain:

  • Stay active
  • Try simple pain relief
  • If you need it, seek advice

For some examples of what others have done to reduce the incidence of back pain at work and how organisations have worked to rehabilitate sufferers and get them back at work, go to the ‘case studies‘ section.

For information to help employers, managers and employees prevent and manage the effects of back pain in the workplace visit the back pain section.

Upper limb disorders (ULDs)

The term upper limb disorders (ULDs) is used as an umbrella term for a range of disorders of the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder and neck. It covers those conditions, with specific medical diagnoses (eg frozen shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome), and other conditions (often called ‘repetitive strain injury’ or  RSI) where there is pain without specific symptoms. Symptoms may include pain, swelling and difficulty moving.

For information to help employers, managers and employees prevent and manage the effects of ULDs in the workplace visit the ULD section.

Lower limb disorders (LLDs)

Lower limb disorder (LLD) is used for a range of disorders of the hips, legs, knees, ankles and feet. It covers those conditions with specific medical diagnoses (eg osteoarthritis of the knee and hip), and other conditions where there is pain without specific symptoms. Symptoms may include pain, swelling and difficulty moving.

For information to help employers, managers and employees prevent and manage the effects of LLDs in the workplace visit the LLD section.

Display screen equipment (DSE)

DSE includes all the potential issues that may result from using display screen equipment, which used to be referred to as VDUs (visual display units) and includes use of computer equipment in both the workplace and at home if you are a home-worker. ULDs, headaches and visual problems can all be associated with working at a poorly designed workstation. 

For information to help employers, managers and employees prevent and manage the effects of risks of working with DSE visit the DSE section.

Manual handling

Manual handling covers a wide variety of tasks including lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. Injuries can occur almost anywhere, when people are at work or at home, and for many reasons like heavy loads or awkward postures. In addition, previous or existing injury can increase the risk.

Early reporting of symptoms, proper treatment and suitable return to work plans can help most people recover from their injuries and return to work. However some people may need to take longer periods off work and possibly even leave work entirely. The injured person may find that their lifestyle, leisure activities, ability to sleep and job prospects are affected.

MSD – Manual handling

Manual handling relates to the moving of items either by lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing or pulling. The weight of the item is an important factor, but many other factors can create a risk of injury, for example the number of times you have to pick up or carry an item, the distance you are carrying it, where you are picking it up from or putting it down (picking it up from the floor, putting it on a shelf above shoulder level) and any twisting, bending, stretching or other awkward posture you may adopt while doing a task.

Manual handling injuries are part of a wider group of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The term ‘musculoskeletal disorders’ covers any injury, damage or disorder of the joints or other tissues in the upper/lower limbs or the back. Statistics from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) indicate that MSD cases, including those caused by manual handling, account for more than a third of all work-related illnesses reported each year to the enforcing authorities PDF.

There is evidence that, as well as manual handling, heavy manual labour, awkward postures and a recent or existing injury are all risk factors in the development of MSDs. The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR) require employers to manage the risks to their employees. They must:

  • Avoid hazardous manual handling operations so far as is reasonably practicable, by redesigning the task to avoid moving the load or by automating or mechanising the process.
  • Make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk of injury from any hazardous manual handling operations that cannot be avoided.
  • Reduce the risk of injury from those operations so far as is reasonably practicable. Where possible, provide mechanical assistance, for example, a sack trolley or hoist. Where this is not reasonably practicable then explore changes to the task, the load and the working environment.

Medical and scientific knowledge stress the importance of an ergonomic approach to look at manual handling as a whole, taking into account the nature of the task, the load and the working environment, and requiring worker participation.

Free tools

HSE has developed tools to help employers analyse lifting, carrying and team handling (the MAC tool and the V-MAC tool), repetitive upper limb tasks (the ART tool) and pushing and pulling (the RAPP tool). Depending on the task, you may find it helpful to use more than one tool, for example you may need to pick up a box of items (lifting), carry it to a workstation (carrying), then distribute the contents to other locations such as pigeon holes or a filing cabinet (repetitive movements).

For more information about each tool click on the following links

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