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03/06/2021

How to adapt workplaces to support workers’ musculoskeletal health

Workplaces should be designed as inclusively as possible with everyone in mind. However, some workers – such as those suffering from chronic musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – may still require extra accommodations. With the right measures in place, workers with a chronic MSD can usually continue to work. As a result, workplace adaptations bring benefits to the worker and the employer alike.

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Workplace adaptations are often quick, inexpensive and simple to implement. And yet, they can have a significant impact on workers and help prevent the development or further aggravation of a chronic musculoskeletal condition. In this article, we’ll look at the main success factors to consider when making accommodations. Some of these changes may need to be permanent, whereas others may be temporary as part of a return to work programme.

Establish a culture of support and communication

Before making any adjustments, it’s important to understand workers’ requirements. This can be achieved by encouraging workers to communicate in an open and honest way. Conversations should involve the worker, the supervisor, and representatives from the HR team and the healthcare provider to ensure a joined-up approach to tackling MSDs. Seeking medical advice is particularly important, since it will help inform what kind of support is needed. However, advice medical information may only be shared with the worker’s permission and they are not obliged to share their diagnosis.

The worker should discuss with their employer their symptoms and how they vary, which tasks they find challenging, and what kind of support they need. Placing the focus on the worker’s capabilities will also help to ensure that any eventual measures are as effective as possible. Determining which workplace adaptations are needed in practice is a process of learning, so employers should allow time to try out different measures to see what will be most efficient and helpful. In most cases, a combination of measures will be required.

Making general adaptations and adjustments to the working environment

With an understanding of the worker’s requirements, employers are able to address tailored solutions to support the worker in their daily tasks. These include the procurement of specialised tools and equipment, such as an ergonomic mouse or keyboard, voice dictation software or a wireless headset for answering the phone. Providing equipment to prevent issues during prolonged periods of sitting – such as an adjustable height sit/stand desk, a cushion to relieve pressure, or a foldable perching stool for site visits – is also recommended.

For workers with more debilitating chronic conditions, employers may need to install permanent adaptations such as handrails or automatic doors. Employers should consider these long-term adaptations anyway, since they will reduce the need for specific adaptations and improve the accessibility and inclusivity of the workplace, as well as supporting workers who may feel uncomfortable or stigmatised when asking for such measures.

Alterations to tasks, duties and working hours

Alongside the physical accommodations to support chronic musculoskeletal conditions, there are also organisational adaptations to consider. These include swapping or rotating tasks among team members to avoid more physically challenging work, providing the opportunity to take regular, short breaks, pacing work to avoid fatigue, or considering moving the person to different tasks if they are no longer able to continue in their current role.

Flexibility in terms of working hours and locations is also important when it comes to supporting workers with chronic musculoskeletal conditions. Some workers may benefit from an adjustment to their working patterns to, for example, start work later if pain is worse in the mornings or to avoid having to stand on public transport during their commute to the workplace. Allowing workers to telework on days where their pain is particularly severe is also an important way to support the worker and prevent aggravation of their condition. Workers should also be able to take occasional time off to attend medical appointments.

It is important to keep in mind that the individuals’ condition may change overtime, so the measures need to be reviewed to check that they are consistently effective. Finally, measures such as ergonomic improvements, or flexible working hours or a teleworking policy would often benefit all workers.

For more information on how these adaptations can be implemented in working situations, read our recent article highlighting real case studies of workers with chronic MSDs, which demonstrates how the related challenges were overcome. Further details can also be found on the section of the campaign website dedicated to chronic MSDs. Finally, don’t forget to follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for more good practice tips and information.