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Workplace challenges and risk factors call for new approaches in MSDs prevention

The prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) remains high among EU workers due to a combination of elements. These include the impact of changing ways of working, an ageing workforce, and psychosocial factors. New approaches to prevention can help to achieve a long-term reduction in the prevalence of MSDs among EU workers.

  • Changing ways of working

Work is changing in both how and where we carry it out. Digitalisation has resulted in the use of new technologies potentially allowing access to work at all times. Also, online platform working has increased leading to a change in the relationship between employers and workers who are either self-employed or on casual contracts that might not always follow the necessary occupational safety and health (OSH) regulations. New ways of working also include changes in work processes, and evidence clearly shows that implementing changes using job design and ergonomics can reduce exposure.   

  • Older workers

The prevalence of MSDs increases in older workers. Although it is still under debate whether this is due to extended duration of exposure and/or reduced capacity with increasing age, data suggest that older workers are being exposed to considerable risks at work. When comparing older workers (usually defined as workers over 50 years) with those under 35 years old, research has found that exposure to repetitive arm movements and moving and handling loads was reduced, whereas exposure to painful and tiring positions was increased. Evidence also indicates that, when injuries occur, recovery time is longer[1].  

  • Psychosocial factors

Psychosocial factors including poor social support, low levels of job control and work-life conflict have all been found to have an impact on the prevalence of MSDs.  Research has identified that reducing exposure to burnout may have the potential to reduce musculoskeletal pain. Fatigue might also be a factor, and individuals with MSDs report getting less sleep. Managing psychosocial risks may reduce musculoskeletal disorders. Despite this, when psychosocial risks are assessed, the connection with MSDs is not often taken into consideration.

New approaches to MSD prevention

Although provisions for the prevention of MSDs are laid down in the Manual Handling and Display Screen Equipment Directives, these do not cover all MSDs risks.

Considering the MSDs that might result from digitalisation and the changing ways of working, the identification of current practices to improve the prevention of the impact on MSDs caused by the digital integration of an individual’s work-life commitments and platform working is needed.

As regards older workers, increasing awareness and understanding of the work relevance of MSDs and their identification, prognosis and prevention in the workforce is required. Also, interventions to optimise symptom control and provide a more flexible and adaptive work environment can substantially improve older people’s prospects of remaining in work.

There is also a need to adapt risk assessment tools and risk reduction measures to be able to consider both MSDs and psychosocial risks together. Employers should also ensure that workplace health promotion activities focus on MSD prevention, as well as health behaviours that affect MSDs.

To achieve a sustained reduction in the societal burden of MSDs, all these issues need to be addressed. Be sure to visit the facts & figures priority area of the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign to find out more about the prevalence of MSDs. There you will find lots of tools and guidance, publications and interesting case studies. And don’t forget to follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest news and event updates.