Assessing psychosocial risk factors: implications for musculoskeletal disorders risk assessment
While musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are manageable, both physical and psychosocial factors can influence the physical and mental wellbeing of workers. Psychosocial factors, such as excessive workload, time pressure, lack of control over tasks and low social support can contribute significantly to the risk of developing or exacerbating MSDs. In turn, having an MSD can lead to stress, anxiety or depression. It is therefore essential that these risk factors be assessed together in order to ensure a holistic approach to safety and health in the workplace.
Developing a holistic approach to risk assessment
Traditionally, MSD risk assessments focused solely on physical factors. However, research demonstrates that interventions based on single measures are less likely to prevent MSDs than a multifaceted strategy. Developing an effective risk assessment, that considers both psychosocial risk factors and MSDs together, requires ongoing commitment at management level. Regular reviews are key, as the dynamic nature of workplaces mean existing risks can change and new risks can emerge.
Evidence also suggests that measures developed collaboratively with workers are more effective. For example, anonymous surveys and body and hazard mapping rely on the active participation of workers, encouraging them to think about how their health might be affected by work, identify potential risks and come up with practical solutions. The results are an invaluable input for risk assessment and monitoring processes. This also contributes to a culture of open communication around psychosocial risk factors and MSDs.
A hospital surgical department provides a practical example
Nurses in a hospital surgical department were experiencing chronic back pain as a result of having to lift patients. Two ergonomic patient lifters were purchased; however, levels of back pain did not diminish, in fact they were increasing. It was initially assumed that the lifters were not being used correctly, prompting an assessment by a safety engineer and an occupational physician. They were surprised to find that they weren’t being used at all.
The assessment uncovered that high time pressure and understaffing meant nurses were unable to ask colleagues for help and felt they did not have time to retrieve and use the lifters. Further pressure from management and fear of repercussions (such as being assigned unfavourable shifts for being perceived as ‘difficult’) were also significant factors. This real-life scenario highlights how psychosocial and organisational risk factors prolonged the work-related risks for the nurses, and even exacerbated their musculoskeletal problems.
The benefits of an integrated approach
Considering multiple risk factors, including psychosocial risk factors (and combinations of these), will not only help to prevent MSDs developing, but also support rehabilitation. Indeed, a systematic review found that psychosocial factors can also create barriers to returning to work for those with chronic MSDs. For example, implementing simple changes to improve ergonomics and recovery time can help to alleviate fears of experiencing further pain and encourage people with chronic conditions back to work.
Integrating both sets of factors in MSD risk assessments could therefore alleviate the economic burden of absenteeism and reduced performance, as well as playing a vital role in improving the health and wellbeing of workers.
The benefits of considering both physical and psychosocial factors as part of an MSD risk assessment are clear: this holistic approach can lead to a more positive and supportive workplace environment, where the prevention and rehabilitation of MSDs can more effectively take place, as well as the prevention of psychological health problems.
You can find additional information in the OSHWiki article on psychosocial risk factors for MSDs, the article on Return to work after MSD-related sick leave in the context of psychosocial risks at work and much more.