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Musculoskeletal disorders and ageing – time to ease the strain in the workplace

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most prevalent types of work-related health problems. Among respondents in the EU who declared having a work-related health problem, 60% pointed to MSDs as their most serious issue [1]. The ageing population is driving organisations to tackle this in various ways, particularly in relation to older workers – a high-risk group for MSDs.


Usually affecting the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs, most work-related MSDs develop over time. Ageing can lead to an increase in MSD prevalence due to reduction in muscle strength or resistance.

According to EU-OSHA’s Second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2), MSDs are equally reported across all activity sectors and are becoming ever more prevalent in Europe. This situation highlights the importance of rehabilitation and return-to-work programmes to successfully reintegrate workers coming back after periods of injury or illness.

The most frequently identified MSDs-related risk factors found in workplaces according to ESENER-2 [2] are tiring or painful positions (56% of establishments in the EU-28) and repetitive hand or arm movements (52%). Lifting or moving people or heavy loads was also a very prevalent risk factor (over 40%).

MSDs affect both genders and all ages, but women are more at risk from psychosocial factors such as time pressure, which are known as contributing risks factors to higher incidence and/or seriousness of musculoskeletal conditions.

Companies across Europe have begun to realise the benefits of tackling MSDs. Dartex is a small sewing plant in Poland with 14 female employees (3 of whom remain in employment despite being entitled to an early pension). External consultants came in and used ergonomics to improve workstations, reducing the need to lean down; introduced a basket system with weight limits so sewers now carry lighter loads; and installed hydraulic chairs so workers sit at correct heights to prevent back problems.

Employing mostly men, the United Kingdom’s Northumbrian Water Group, who supply and manage waste water systems, focused on prevention by providing early intervention physiotherapy for employees. This resulted in a 40% reduction in sickness absence due to MSDs, and helped the company recognise the importance of reducing MSD risks to create sustainable workplaces.

The measures taken by these companies are transferable and demonstrate how some simple preventive measures and adjustments can make workplaces more sustainable. This is also highlighted in the Napo film devoted to MSDs ‘Napo in… lighten the load’. The film was released during the Healthy Workplaces Campaign in 2007, dedicated to MSDs, and the campaign topic will make a return in 2020 as the topic continues to be one of the most important health issues for workplaces.

While attitudes towards ageing and work are changing and employers are increasingly recognising the value of a collaborative multigenerational workforce, not that many workplaces actually implement measures to support and increase the retention of their older workers. More needs to be done in this respect, together with adjusting workplace designs and the prevention of and rehabilitation from musculoskeletal disorders.

To find out more about MSDs visit EU-OSHA’s dedicated page and also discover more case studies on the Healthy Workplaces for All Ages campaign website. You can follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, using the hashtag #EUhealthyworkplaces. You can also subscribe to our campaign newsletter.