Musculoskeletal Injuries in the Workplace: A Guide to Prevention and Recovery

Musculoskeletal Injuries in the Workplace: A Guide to Prevention and Recovery

According to a 2022/23 report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 473,000 workers suffer from a work-related musculoskeletal disorder in Great Britain alone. Whether you’re a construction worker, a foreman in a warehouse or someone who spends all day behind a desk, it is clear that musculoskeletal injuries affect many people around the world. This can impact everything from muscles and tendons to nerves and bones. As a result, sufferers can experience pain and discomfort, and their ability to move freely can be restricted. However, this can be prevented.

The following guide provides information to help recognise the early signs, so that they can be addressed before they become a chronic problem. In addition to this, the guide will explore a range of preventative strategies – from equipping workers with the right tools and personal protective equipment (PPE) to incorporating stretches into their routine. By understanding this growing risk and taking proactive steps, organisations can keep employees safe and performing at their best.

What are musculoskeletal injuries?

Musculoskeletal injuries (MSKIs), also known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are a major concern in the workplace. These injuries affect the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and bones, causing pain, discomfort and reduced mobility. Workers with roles that require physically demanding tasks and repetitive actions can be more susceptible to MSKIs.

What are the main causes of MSKIs?

As people get older, their risk of developing an MSKI becomes greater. However, factors such as obesity, physical frailty, accident or trauma, smoking, alcohol consumption and diet can also have implications on musculoskeletal health. In environments such as the workplace, physical activity can also increase the risks. Where physical exertion is required by workers, the actions below can often be the main cause of work-related MSDs.

Repetitive movements

The same movements that are repeated continuously in the workplace can cause significant problems for the musculoskeletal system. When a muscle or tendon is constantly engaged in the same motion, microscopic tears can develop. If these micro-tears occur faster than the body can repair them, inflammation sets in, leading to pain and discomfort. 

People working on assembly lines, machine operators and roles that require continuous lifting can be exposed to these risks, causing strain on their muscles and tendons. Over time, these injuries can become chronic, limiting mobility and impacting overall well-being.

Awkward postures

When the body is forced into unnatural positions for extended periods, it increases the amount of mechanical stress applied to certain muscles, ligaments and joints. Such positions also create a muscle imbalance, with some muscles working harder to compensate for muscles that are underutilised. This leads to pain and discomfort. The strain from awkward positions can also affect ligaments, causing them to stretch or tear. 

Working in confined spaces, and overreaching or maintaining fixed positions for long periods of time, puts stress on the body as a result of the awkward posture. These issues can lead to more serious problems like muscle imbalances, joint degeneration and chronic pain. An employee survey highlighted that 12.7% of respondents were often exposed to awkward postures at work. This highlights the prevalence, especially in sectors such as agriculture.

Heavy lifting

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 86,000 reported cases of lifting-related injuries, often due to one-time heavy lifts. When workers are lifting objects that exceed their capacity, or use incorrect techniques, it puts an immense strain on the muscles, joints and spine. As a result, the discs in the spine can become compressed or herniated, which causes severe pain and restricts mobility. Ligaments supporting the spine can also overstretch or tear, leading to instability and long-term implications. 

Incorrect lifting techniques, or trying to manoeuvre something that is too heavy, can also strain muscles beyond their ability, causing tears and inflammation. This is often problematic and creates issues for the lower back, shoulders and knees, which bear the brunt of the lifting effort. 

Vibrations

Constant exposure to vibrations in the workplace can damage nerves and blood vessels in the hands and arms, leading to conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and Raynaud’s phenomenon (numbness and tingling in the fingers). Similar to repetitive movements, vibrations can also cause micro-tears in muscles and tendons. 

In Europe, 14% to 34% of workers are exposed to vibration, with the construction industry (63%), manufacturing and mining (44%), and agriculture and fishing (38%) experiencing the highest concentrations. If such movements are not addressed and exposure continues, this can lead to muscle fatigue, weakness and pain. Workers who regularly operate power tools, machinery or vehicles with strong vibrations are particularly susceptible to these risks.

How do you know if you’re suffering from an MSKI?

MSKIs encompass a wide range of symptoms that can indicate the body’s musculoskeletal system has been impacted. The most common indicator is pain, which can be constant, dull or sharp, and may become worse with specific activities and movement.

Reduced mobility and range of motion are another telltale sign. Workers might find it difficult to perform tasks that were once easy, such as reaching overhead or bending down. Additionally, stiffness and tightness in muscles, especially when waking up, getting out of bed or after prolonged inactivity, can point towards an MSKI.

What are the most common musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace?

Musculoskeletal disorders affect both the organisation and employee. The employer has high costs associated with absenteeism, loss of productivity and medical and financial retribution, while the employee can have their lives affected physically, mentally and financially. To better understand the implications, here are some of the most common MSKIs in the workplace.

Back injuries

Injuries affecting the back are more prevalent in certain sectors; reports highlight that it is statistically higher in construction and transport compared with the average across other industries. Lower back pain can be extremely common, stemming from lifting, pushing, pulling or dragging heavy objects, repetitive motions or prolonged sitting/standing. Back injuries can also include herniated discs. This is often the result of gradual wear and tear, which can be exacerbated in the workplace due to the physically demanding tasks.

Upper limb disorders

These include aches and pains in the shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and fingers, as well as in the neck. This can lead to muscle strain and tension as a result of working on assembly lines, in construction or processing plants because of prolonged repetitive work, awkward working postures or working with handheld power tools for extended periods of time. Carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and rotator cuff injuries are examples of MSKIs that affect the upper limbs.

Lower limb disorders

These injuries at work affect the hip, thigh, knee, calf, ankle or foot. They can include joint and soft tissue problems, which can be exacerbated over time. Workers may suffer from aches and pains, reduced range of movement, tenderness, stiffness, weakness, cramp and swelling. Injuries affecting the lower limbs can also be associated with other regions of the body such as the lower back. These can often be an acute injury or progress over time.


Sectors most vulnerable to musculoskeletal injuries

Sectors that require physically demanding tasks and exertion often see a high prevalence of MSKIs. While not limited to these sectors, here’s a closer look at some examples that are often at higher risk of these types of incidents and injuries.

Manufacturing

Assembly line workers, machine operators and welders are exposed to a combination of risk factors. Repetitive motions on assembly lines can strain muscles and tendons, while welders often work in awkward postures and may lift heavy equipment. It’s no wonder that reports from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that the manufacturing and construction sector combined accounted for more than half of all musculoskeletal disorders.

Construction

Carpenters, electricians and labourers face hazards like heavy lifting, awkward postures while working at height and exposure to vibrations from power tools. These factors can lead to back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and rotator cuff injuries.

Logistics and warehousing

Within the transportation and storage industries, 36% of the 55,000 workers suffering from work-related illnesses had musculoskeletal disorders. Workers in these sectors perform repetitive tasks such as lifting, carrying and sorting goods. This constant strain can lead to back pain, neck pain and injuries to the shoulders and knees.

Utilities

A survey of electrical utility workers in Australia highlighted that a large proportion of employees reported musculoskeletal symptoms had impacted their ability to perform their job, housework and/or hobbies in the preceding 12 months. Utility workers, such as cable installers and meter readers, face a variety of MSKI risks. Climbing poles, entering confined spaces, lifting heavy tools and working in awkward overhead positions can lead to back pain, shoulder injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome. Additionally, some utility work requires kneeling or crouching for extended periods, putting stress on the knees and hips. 

Mining

Miners face a unique set of MSKI risks. Studies have shown that the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders among people working in mines is relatively high, with the most common disorder affecting the upper and lower back and neck.

Working in cramped spaces often necessitates awkward postures, while lifting heavy equipment and tools is a regular occurrence. Additionally, exposure to vibrations from mining machinery can contribute to MSKI development.

Healthcare

Research shows that healthcare roles, such as nursing, often require carrying out tasks like lifting patients, which can result in disabling MSK injuries. Lifting patients, repetitive tasks like medication administration, and long hours spent standing or walking make healthcare workers susceptible to MSKIs. These activities can contribute to back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and other MSKIs.


Building resilience: Preventing MSKIs

Organisations have a responsibility to take proactive steps to prevent MSKIs and protect the well-being of their workforce. By implementing necessary measures, organisations can significantly reduce the risk of MSKIs, protecting their workforce and ensuring optimal productivity. Here are some strategies that can be utilised as part of a holistic approach to protecting the well-being of employees.

Job rotation

Implement job rotation schedules to prevent repetitive motions and allow for rest periods throughout the workday. This helps to distribute the physical demands of tasks and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

Lifting techniques training

Provide comprehensive training on proper lifting techniques for all workers who handle heavy objects. This training should emphasise proper form, core engagement and the use of mechanical aids whenever possible.

Stretch and break programmes

Encourage employees to take regular breaks throughout their shifts to stretch, move around and relax their muscles. Implementing short, scheduled stretch breaks can significantly improve worker well-being and reduce MSKI risks.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Provide appropriate PPE to safeguard workers from specific MSKI risks associated with their tasks. This may include lifting belts and back braces for heavy lifting, wrist braces for repetitive hand and arm movements, and padded knee pads for kneeling or crouching tasks.

Wearable technology

The rise of wearable technology presents a new frontier in MSKI prevention. These devices can be used to monitor worker posture, track movement patterns and even detect potential risks for overuse injuries in real-time. Biometrical data collected by wearables, such as the smart safety solution from Bodytrak®, can inform ergonomic assessments and training programmes, further personalising MSKI prevention strategies for individual workers. Speak to the team for a complimentary demo or more information on how this works.

Ergonomic assessments

Regularly evaluate workstations to ensure they promote proper posture and comfort for all workers. Invest in adjustable workstations, seating and tools to accommodate a diverse range of body types and minimise strain. Rapid Entire Body Assessments can also be useful. Developed as a means of assessing the posture of the entire body, this is a tool aimed at preventing MSKIs.

Safety culture

Foster a safety culture where employees feel empowered to report potential hazards and request adjustments to workstations or procedures, and prioritise safe work practices. By openly communicating about safety concerns, employers can work collaboratively with workers to create a safer and healthier work environment.


Recovering from MSKIs

Early diagnosis and medical intervention are key to preventing any MSKI becoming a long-term disorder and improving the time required to recover. If employees experience any of the symptoms, it’s critical they seek medical attention immediately. It’s important that employees do not self-diagnose or self-rehabilitate any suspected injuries as this may cause further damage and affect recovery.

While preventing MSKIs is crucial, even the most comprehensive safeguards can’t eliminate all risks. Here are some key steps to promote recovery and a successful return to work; it is important, however, that medical help is sought before taking any action.

Rest and recovery

Depending on the severity of the injury, some time off work may be necessary. This allows the body to focus on healing and reduces the risk of further aggravation.

Rehabilitation

Physical therapy is a cornerstone of MSKI recovery. A therapist can design a personalised programme to address pain, improve flexibility and strength, and restore proper movement patterns.

Ergonomic modifications

It’s crucial to address any ergonomic risk factors that may have contributed to the injury. This might involve modifications to your workstation, the use of assistive devices for lifting or repetitive tasks, or adjustments to work processes.

Gradual reintegration 

Returning to full duties too quickly can lead to setbacks. A phased approach, gradually increasing workload and activity levels, is recommended to ensure a safe and sustainable return to work.

Recovery from an MSKI is an individual process. By following these general principles and working closely with the healthcare team, workers can regain strength and mobility and get back to doing the activities they enjoy.


Conclusion

Aside from stress, depression or anxiety, musculoskeletal disorders were the highest cause of days lost in workplaces in Great Britain. They accounted for 6.6 million days lost due to work-related ill health, out of the total of 35.2 million. Such statistics highlight the significant challenge MSKIs have on ever-changing work environments.

Prevention and early detection are key. Understanding the risks and implementing comprehensive prevention programmes can protect the safety and well-being of employees. Some injuries may be unavoidable so it’s important for both workers and organisations to recognise the recovery process will differ for each individual.

MSKIs affect millions of workers around the world each year. However, by taking a proactive approach as part of a wider workplace health and safety programme, organisations can foster a better work environment and thrive in their respective sectors.

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