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MSDs prevalence – The key facts and figures

Millions of workers throughout Europe suffer from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), but their prevalence varies significantly among workers, occupations, sectors, countries, and even between workplaces of different company sizes. Data is vital to identify those most at risk to effectively target prevention measures.

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Why MSDs remain so prevalent

MSDs remain the most prevalent work-related health issue among the EU workforce, with roughly three out of every five workers in the EU-28 reporting MSD complaints.

The evidence-based reasons for this and for the variations in prevalence include:

  • the widespread and increasing amount of repetitive work and work involving lifting heavy loads (reported in 54% of establishments in 2019, up from 47% in 2014[1]);
  • new and emerging risk factors such as prolonged sitting (reported in 59% of establishments) and psychosocial factors such as work-related stress, which are also on the rise;
  • new risks from new technologies, new working processes and new ways of organising work;
  • demographic factors such as the ageing EU population (up from 21% in 2014 to 26% in 2019);
  • public health issues such as obesity and a lack of physical exercise.

Different groups of factors can contribute to work-related MSDs, including physical and biomechanical factors, organisational and psychosocial factors, and individual factors. These may act independently or in combination. So, exposure to a combination of risk factors should be considered when assessing work-related MSDs.

The image below shows the percentage of some of the main MSD-related risk factors reported as present in EU establishments in 2014 and 2019[2].


MSDs risk factors do not affect all workers equally

Some variations in the prevalence of MSDs can be explained by sociodemographic factors. For example, MSDs are reported more frequently by female workers, older workers and in those with only pre-primary or primary education.

Variations between sectors are also significant, with blue-collar workers more likely to suffer from MSDs. The prevalence of MSDs is above average in sectors such as construction and agriculture. For example, the percentage of workers reporting backache is 52% in construction workers and 60% for agriculture workers, while the EU average is 46%. MSDs are reported least often in financial and insurance activities and in the education, arts, and entertainment and recreation sectors.[3]

An establishment’s size has also shown to have a direct effect on the development of MSDs such as back pain: the bigger the establishment, the more availability of preventive measures. In places of work counting over 250 employees, 92% have access to ergonomic equipment. This drops to 70% for companies with 10-49 employees, and to just 59% for micro-enterprises (5-9 employees) – highlighting the need to further support SMEs and their workers.[4]

Finally, the differences between EU countries are pronounced. The percentage of workers reporting MSD-related complains as their most serious problem ranges from 40% in Luxembourg to 70% in Czech Republic and Finland. There are also country differences in terms of the availability of programmes such rehabilitation and return to work – available to 95% of workers in Sweden but to just 19% of workers in Estonia, for example.[5]

A series of articles covering the facts and figures on MSDs will be published up to the end of March, including this look at the business case for tackling MSDs. You can also visit the facts and figures priority area webpage to find more reports, case studies and other campaign resources on the topic. And don’t forget to follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest news and event updates.