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01/07/2022

Call for joint action to promote physical health in education: ENETOSH and EU-OSHA workshop on MSD prevention

Experts from the occupational safety and health (OSH), public health and education fields came together at the ENETOSH and EU-OSHA “Strategies to promote good physical health in education” workshop on 23 June. The event provided a forum for the discussion of different approaches and to identify opportunities for cooperation. A joined-up, strategic approach is necessary to ensure the integration of physical activity into the school system to promote learning, health and musculoskeletal disease (MSD) prevention for a future generation of workers.

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The prevalence of MSDs among children and young people  

The first session, ‘Musculoskeletal diseases – a problem for children and adolescents?’ highlighted an average prevalence of 30% among 7-26 year olds, increasing to 34% among students, apprentices, and young workers. These were the results of a scoping review conducted by Kerstin Schmidt and Paul Schmidt, BioMath GmbH. While physical, psychosocial, socio-economic and environmental risk factors were identified, the current lack of high-quality studies investigating risk factors for MSDs in children and young people means it is not yet possible to draw concrete conclusions. Further research is needed to support the implementation of public health campaigns.  

Interventions using a combination of actions were found to be more effective than initiatives with a single focus. The importance of early intervention was then evidenced by Lorna Taylor, Chartered Paediatric Physiotherapist. Even our earliest movements help to develop strength, posture and endurance. Driven by a natural curiosity and desire to move, providing babies and young children with ample opportunity to play, practice gross motor skills and assess risk is not only key in the prevention of MSDs, but also supports all aspects of learning and brain development.


Mainstreaming health and physical activity in education  

“Health promotion as an integral part of school development” was the focus of the second session, with Dr Peter Paulus, Leuphana University, presenting Schools for Health in Europe (SHE). This network of 38 countries provides a valuable platform for collaborative learning. The need for a strategic shift was identified: it is necessary to support schools with their core purpose of teaching and learning. The Good Healthy School Approach, currently operating in German-speaking countries, aims to promote this link between education and health promotion and help schools become better schools.     

Heinz Hundeloh, Senior Expert, described the four core messages and six principles to follow to successfully implement MSDs prevention in schools, as detailed in the Better Schools by Promoting Musculoskeletal Health report. He emphasised the complexity of the school system, and how each school requires a tailored approach. While OSH professionals can certainly make the case for systemic change, this goal can only be achieved through committed collaboration with relevant stakeholders at all levels.


MSDs prevention in schools: core messages  

Participants had an opportunity to reflect on those core messages and principles in Breakout Rooms, discussing their experiences of integrating physical activity in their own institutions or in schools. The importance of establishing a monitoring system, using high quality evidence to influence decision-makers and implementing a systemic, collaborative approach were just some of the ideas shared. This session also demonstrated, in real terms, the value in sharing best practice examples and challenges across the European network – and beyond – to develop an effective strategic approach.   


Education for Sustainability (EfS)  

The final session explored how we can rethink education and learning to help meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In his keynote speech, Arjen Wals, Wageningen University, explored how an integrated and holistic learning approach could lead to more experiential and physical learning. Also, making better use of the local environment would create opportunities for movement, and improve emotional and social knowledge in the process. Alternative curriculums, school design and opportunities to empower students, teachers and school leaders to influence their school’s ethos were also discussed.  

The connection between OSH and EfS was developed further by Maria Klotz, Institute for Work and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV). She explained how an analysis of her own institution led to the establishment of quality criteria for education for sustainability. Further contributions from an expert panel and participants followed, with ‘Transdisciplinarity’, ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Participation’ highlighted as key concepts to take forward to achieve both EfS and OSH mainstreaming in education.  


Schools are particularly well placed to contribute to the early and long-term prevention of MSDs, given the number of years they are able to positively impact the safety and health of their students through physical education and activity. This workshop demonstrates the importance of exploring opportunities for joint action to achieve systemic change.

Further information on the event and contributors is available on the ENETOSH event website.  

You can also view additional resources in the Future Generations Priority Area.  

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