Opinion

Musculoskeletal disorders at work – the current state of play in Britain

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The latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in Great Britain in 2020/21, approximately 470,000 workers reported suffering from new or longstanding work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).


MSD is a broad, collective term for injuries or pain in bones, cartilage, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and so on. Some examples of MSDs are tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and neck and back problems. MSDs accounted for 28 per cent of all work-related ill health in Britain in 2020/21 and, as explored further on, the total cost of work-related ill health to Britain is estimated to be in excess of £16 billion.

HSE reports that the main work activities that cause MSDs are manual handling, working in awkward or tiring positions and keyboard or repetitive work. Issues with the upper limbs/neck account for 45 per cent of the reported cases of MSDs.

About 18 per cent of people suffering with a work-related MSD in 2020/21 said that it was caused or made worse by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph

The industries with the highest incidence of work-related MSD are construction and human health and social work, with an incidence rate of 1,830 and 1,500 per 100,000 workers respectively. This is due to the nature of the tasks that workers in these industries must carry out, often involving risks like heavy lifting, repeated movements or restricted body positions.

Impact of coronavirus

There was generally a downward trend in the incidence of MSDs in the workforce in Britain before the pandemic and since the pandemic the levels of ill-health reported in this category have remained relatively stable. In 2020/21, the rate of MSDs (new and long-standing) was broadly similar to the 2018/19 pre-coronavirus levels.

However, Covid-19 has undoubtedly impacted the trends and has been a contributory factor to instances of musculoskeletal-related ill health in the British workforce. Approximately 18 per cent of people suffering with a work-related MSD in 2020/21 said that it was caused or made worse by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Charlotte O’Kane is senior associate at Pinsent Masons LLP

Why does it matter?

The latest statistics confirm that work-related MSDs will continue to be a priority for HSE, which will in turn inform its targeted interventions in high-risk sectors and occupations, including construction and health and social care. 

Employers in these sectors and beyond should therefore ensure they both understand and fully comply with their duties to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their work activities. 

New tools from HSE

HSE has recently released the MSD Assessment Tool, a digitalised version of its existing musculoskeletal assessment guide tools. These include the Manual Handling Assessment Charts (MAC), Risk Assessment of Pushing and Pulling (RAPP) and Assessment of Repetitive Tasks (ART) tools. The digital tool has been released to help employers secure better outcomes in this area and to assist them in fulfilling their health and safety duties.

The MSD Assessment Tool has not changed the content of the MAC, ART, and RAPP guides, but is an enhanced digital version designed to help remove the administrative burden on employers and make it easier for them to complete MSD risk assessments. Employers should consider using the digital tool when conducting their risk assessments to make the process more efficient and accessible.

Engagement with HSE

The release of the MSD Assessment Tool should be viewed in the context of HSE’s increased focus on the health and wellbeing of workers in Britain.

Hannah Frost is solicitor at Pinsent Masons LLP

In recent years HSE has reiterated that its role is not just to enforce health and safety legislation when there has been an accident. In May 2022 HSE published its strategy for 2022 to 2032, Protecting People and Places. One of the main strategic objectives as set out in this document is that HSE will ‘continue to help businesses take often simple steps to design out risks to prevent work-related ill health, with a particular focus on supporting good mental health at work’.

The development of the MSD Assessment Tool falls squarely within HSE’s strategy. The development of this easy-to-use tool will make it easier for employers to comply with their obligation to eliminate or reduce the risks from work-related MSDs and for workers to be confident that the MSD risks associated with their work are being considered and addressed.

This proactive approach by HSE will help to ensure a healthier and safer workforce, which will ultimately result in fewer instances of work-related ill health.

Clearly, reducing the level of work-related ill health is good for workers and employers. Workers who do not suffer damage to their mind or body as a result of exposure to occupational hazards can remain in work and continue to contribute to the economy. By protecting workers’ health and safety, including from MSD risks, employers can continue to employ experienced and qualified staff to carry out their work.

However, the effective management of occupational health and safety risks is also good for Britain as a whole.

The most recent statistics from 2018/2019 show that work-related ill health costs Britain £10.6 billion each year, while work-related injury results in costs of £5.6 billion each year. These cost estimates are produced by HSE and take into account human costs (i.e. the impact on the individual’s quality of life) and financial costs (i.e. loss of production and healthcare costs etc).

As a result, taking effective action to improve the health, safety and wellbeing of workers in Great Britain will help to minimise these costs going forward.

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