Musculoskeletal disorders and manual handling

Musculoskeletal disorders and manual handling

Musculoskeletal disorders or MSDs are injuries and disorders that affect the body's musculoskeletal system – the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs and so on which provide support and movement to the body. Common MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, repetitive strain injury, and injury and pain to backs, necks and arms.

MSDs are one of the most common work-related ill health conditions. In 2016, 507,000 people reported that they were suffering from a work-related MSD. It is also the second most common reason for sickness absence, after minor illnesses like coughs and colds.

Many cases of MSD are caused by manual handling – lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing, pulling or holding any object, animal or person – basically, anything that requires physical effort. Many others develop through repetitive movements, or the use of a computer.

MSDs can have a substantial impact on your quality of life, but many suffer in silence for years. However, your employer has a legal obligation to address the issues that cause them.

Symptoms and conditions

There are a wide range of symptoms associated with MSDs, but aches and pains are the main ones. Sufferers may also experience tenderness, muscle tightness, cramp, pins and needles, numbness and swelling of the affected area. MSDs are usually divided into three categories:

1. Back pain

The back is a complex structure. Pain in the lower or upper back can be the result of a number of issues. Fortunately, it is rarely due to serious disease.

2. Upper limb disorders, or RSI

Upper limb disorders, or ULDs, affect the arms, from the fingers to the neck. They are often called work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs), repetitive strain injuries (RSI) or cumulative trauma disorder. Specific conditions include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), which is a condition that causes pain, numbness and a burning or tingling sensation in the hand and fingers
  • Tendonitis, where a tendon swells up and becomes painful. Tennis elbow is one such condition.

3. Lower limb disorders

Lower limb disorders, or LLDs, affect the legs from the hips to the toes. An example is:

  • Knee bursitis, which is characterised by tenderness and swelling to the knee, and a reduction in movement due to pain.


MSDs can be caused by a range of hazards at work, including:

  • repetitive and/or heavy lifting
  • bending and twisting
  • repeating an action too frequently
  • an uncomfortable working position
  • exerting too much force
  • working too long without a break
  • adverse working environments (too hot or cold)
  • psychosocial factors (high demands, time pressures and lack of control).

Work may also exacerbate MSDs that were caused by activities outside of the workplace, such as sport or your home and social life.

What your employer should do

Like any hazards, your employer needs to manage and control the risks associated with MSDs. This starts with assessing the risks: looking around the workplace to see what things may cause harm, deciding how likely it is that harm will occur, and introducing measures to reduce the chance of that harm occurring. The way jobs are designed, organised and managed can make a significant contribution to reducing the risk of MSDs developing.

Employers have specific duties when you use a computer.

If you move things with physical force, then your employer has additional duties under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992. They have a clear requirement to avoid hazardous manual handling wherever possible. This may involve redesigning the task to avoid moving the load, or automating the process.

Where manual handling cannot be avoided, your employer needs to carry out a risk assessment and introduce measures to control the risk. This may include providing mechanical assistance – for example, a trolley or hoist – but could also involve changing the task, the load and the environment. For instance, can a heavy load be broken up into several lighter ones? Can steps or ramps be avoided?

All too often, employees are given manual handling training while other measures to control risk are ignored. Training can be important, but it cannot overcome issues such as a lack of mechanical aids, unsuitable loads or bad working conditions. Good manual handling training will cover issues like risk factors and how injuries can occur; good handling and working technique; and the use of mechanical aids.  

What you can do

To reduce the risk of you developing an MSD, you should:

  • follow effective systems of work that are in place and use equipment that has been provided
  • follow effective lifting technique
  • adopt good posture while sitting
  • inform your employer if you identify hazardous activities
  • if possible, take regular breaks and vary your tasks
  • exercise regularly – walking, cycling and swimming can help keep your back healthy
  • if you smoke, stop. Smoking can reduce the flow of oxygen to the spine and can lead to the degeneration of the discs in the back

If you suspect that you have an MSD, you should report it to your manager or your safety representative. The earlier it is addressed, the better the outcome will be. Most people with MSDs usually completely recover if the problem is recognised early and treated appropriately.

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