MSDs – a real pain in the neck!

musculoskeletal disorderBack pain is often thought to be one of the main reasons for employees having to take time off work, but it is by no means the only type of serious musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) to affect workplace health.

In fact, according to Health and Safety Executive statistics for 2016/2017, back disorders come second to those affecting the upper limbs or neck. Some 45% of workers, totalling 229,000, suffered from this type of problem, compared to 38% with back disorders and 17% with lower limb disorders.

If you consider that 8.9 million working days were lost in 2016/2017 due to work-related MSDs, it becomes self-evident that as an employer, you need to put the correct procedures in place to help protect your workforce from what can turn out to be long-term, debilitating injuries.

There are a number of things you can do to prevent workers from suffering upper limb MSDs as well as preventing neck problems, and if you have the proper procedures in place, not only are you more likely to have a healthy workforce, but absences caused by these types of injuries will also be reduced.

Prevention and management policy

All workplaces have aspects to them that could be the cause of MSDs, and although manual handling is a significant factor, it’s entirely possible to develop problems when doing office work, such as poor posture at computers and seating that does not support the body adequately.

Every business should have a policy as part of its health and safety regulations to prevent injuries, as far as possible, and to manage the process. It should explain how you will meet legislative requirements and refer to the importance of understanding the sort of tasks that could lead to risks to the neck and upper limbs.

The policy should also explain that information and training will be given to appropriate staff and supervisors once a risk assessment has been completed, and that a monitoring and review process will be established so that if new risks are identified, they can be flagged up and dealt with.

Managing the policy should include:

  • Prompt reporting of any accidents
  • Rapid investigation of accidents
  • Implementing corrective actions
  • Documenting all accident investigations appropriately
  • Regular communication between employer and employee
  • Giving access to professional help for staff
  • Where appropriate, undertaking workplace adjustments

Risk assessment

musculoskeletal disorder

A risk assessment feeds into the development of policy and is the essential ingredient to put in place effective measures for accident and injury prevention, particularly in areas where there is regular and repetitive manual handling.

Lifting heavy loads or carrying out repetitive work at a production line or badly designed assembly process can cause many types of upper limb, shoulder, neck and back pain. Injuries can also be caused when using display screen equipment (DSE) when working at a computer. Some manual work may include lifting people, for example in a hospital or care home, which carries further risk, and all these issues need to be taken into account as potential risks for assessment.

Managing the risks

Workers may encounter problems with manual handling if loads are too heavy, if they lift with the wrong posture, if they twist their trunk or if they carry loads over long distances with unsafe access.

Your risk assessment should identify all possibilities, with an evidential base, and make improvements to reduce the risk of injury. These can include:

  • Using mechanical aids for some or all of the activity
  • Reorganising materials or redesigning the work area
  • Providing training in safe lifting techniques where mechanical aids cannot be used
  • Using low vibration tools where possible
  • Rotating jobs to reduce repetition
  • Developing a safe system or work plan and ensuring this is communicated to staff

With computers now an essential part of any business, it’s important to ensure that an employee working regularly with a display screen is provided with a workstation that meets at least the minimum requirements for health and safety. Even if the workstation meets those standards, employees may need to be trained to use it properly. For example, workers should adjust screens to a height that makes it easy to see without straining the neck, and regular breaks should be taken if there is a lot of repetitive keyboard work.

Lighting levels should also be appropriate, as poor lighting can cause eyestrain and peering forward in order to see a screen, which can put additional stress on the neck and shoulders.


Many accidents and injuries are preventable if staff are well trained on how to operate safely. Training should be regularly updated, especially if any new risks are discovered, and that means encouraging good communication between employer and employees.

MSD prevention may not be infallible, but with the right policy, management and implementation, it doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck!

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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