8 December 2021
Musculoskeletal disorders in construction: what can be done?

According to the latest HSE figures, an estimated 46,000 work-related cases of musculoskeletal disorders were reported among construction workers between 2017-18 and 2019-20 – making up 60% of all cases of work-related ill health. Two percent of construction workers reported that they were suffering from a musculoskeletal condition during this same period, almost double the rate of workers across all sectors.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are injuries or disorders affecting the muscles, joints and connective tissues and causing pain, stiffness, fatigue and disturbed sleep.

So, what are the risk factors causing such a high prevalence of MSD within the construction industry, and what can firms do to reduce the risk of injury among their workers?

Causes of MSD in construction

A recent discussion paper published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work identified a range of physical factors that had a significant relationship with self-reported MSD cases. These included:

  • Vibrations from hand tools
  • Working in tiring or painful positions
  • Carrying or moving heavy loads
  • Repetitive hand or arm movements
  • Being exposed to low temperatures

What responsibilities do employers have?

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers are legally obliged to take all reasonable steps to protect their employees’ health in the workplace. This involves performing risk assessments to identify workplace activities that carry a high risk of injury and long-term health issues. Meanwhile, The Manual Handling Operations Regulations is a piece of legislation, introduced in 1992 and amended in 2002, that legally obliges employers to deal with and reduce the risks of hazardous manual handling, so far as is reasonably practicable.

What more can be done?

A report from Loughborough University entitled Presenteeism related to Musculoskeletal Disorders in UK Construction explores a range of suggestions for how firms can prevent both MSD-related absences and MSD-related presenteeism (i.e., going to work in spite of ill health, which can be detrimental to productivity and lead to more prolonged illness) in their businesses, for example:

  • Shorter, more frequent rest breaks to ensure workers are able to change posture and stretch regularly
  • Job rotation to enable workers to use different muscles and postures
  • Higher quality, specific risk assessments rather than ‘generic’, ‘copy and paste’ forms from previous jobs
  • Better health monitoring and surveillance
  • A phased return to work for workers who have been absent due to MSDs, enabling them to work for less hours or perform lighter duties
  • An overhaul of the payment structure so that workers are not incentivised to go to work when they should be resting
  • Lockable tool chests so that workers don’t have to carry excessively large amounts of tools around with them
  • On-site, practical manual handling training to teach workers good lifting technique
  • Stretching exercises to warm up and stretch out muscles during the working day

Prevention is better than cure

While the upfront spend on occupational health and training may feel off-putting for firms, the long-term payoff could be significant. HSE data reveals that 8.9 million working days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders in 2019/20, meaning that investing in health and wellbeing could pay dividends down the line in terms of higher productivity, fewer absences, and lower staff turnover.

Equally, it is vital to have a comprehensive Employers Liability policy in place, as the high prevalence of MSD within the industry could leave construction firms vulnerable to costly workplace injury claims. To arrange appropriate cover for your clients, get in touch on 0345 345 0777 or email to discuss your case with a specialist construction underwriter.