Tackling musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are found across most industries and are associated with many different physical activities such as manual handling, repetitive tasks, muscular fatigue, load lifting, neck extension and awkward fixed postures. The highest incidence rates of MSDs are found in the agriculture, construction, health and social care, transport and logistics and public administration sectors. However, physical and ergonomic factors are only part of the underlying causes with other workplace psychosocial factors also known to contribute.

The progress we’re making with the health priority programme

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) set out its musculoskeletal disorders plan two years ago. The issues around MSDs are complex. All of our activities are geared towards the overarching aim of exerting downward pressure on the incidence and days lost due to musculoskeletal disorders from work-related activities. At HSE, we’ve taken a blended approach to delivering the plan with some highlights from our programme including:


HSE has invested in the award-winning ‘Go Home Healthy’ campaign which has been used to raise awareness of the scale of work-related musculoskeletal disorders, to promote initiatives and events within the industry, target specific sectors and promote the work of other organisations aiming to protect workers from MSD risks.


We have called-out poor practices by challenging employers’ over-reliance on generic manual handling training. We set out the evidence in research articles (‘The Train Drain’) and at our MSD Summit, and worked with key stakeholders to publish complementary advice ‘Getting help with manual handling risks in your business’. HSE’s reducing risk through design competition, launched in 2017 in conjunction with the Chartered Institute for Ergonomics and Human Factors, encourages employers to share good practice and demonstrate the value of design solutions. The best examples have involved significant workforce participation including workforce competitions, where their ideas were crucial to developing pragmatic, often low-cost, and sustainable solutions.


HSE and local authority regulators have targeted frontline inspections where feasible, to sectors with high incidences of musculoskeletal disorders. Notably, this has involved a return to healthcare inspections after a long absence; evaluating the impact of inspection in food manufacturing; and focusing on complex manual handling in warehousing and distribution centres.

Tools and guidance

We have published an updated version of the popular manual handling assessment chart (MAC tool) and are scoping digital versions to make the assessment toolkit more accessible. Working with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), HSE has compiled a short signposting guide, with links to existing guidance on managing risks of musculoskeletal disorders for safety representatives, which is published on their website.

Research / insight

Understanding the prevailing attitudes of employers and employees, with respect to MSDs was the focus of a qualitative insight research study in three high risk sectors. The insight report highlighted a number of barriers, not least of which was the mismatch in language used by experts and the workforce. It also identified opportunities, which we have explored further by developing concepts to change behaviour of employers and employees in the transport and logistics sector. The wider research portfolio includes a range of proposals to address gaps in our knowledge.


Broadening our influence with stakeholders who can complement our focus on prevention of workplace ill health has been important. This aims to give employers and employees consistent and joined up messages, rather than conflicting information. We have worked with partners across government and with engaged third-sector bodies, to contribute to the recent Government consultation ‘Advancing our health: Prevention in the 2020s’ and support a wider five-year framework for musculoskeletal health.

The challenges we’re facing

Although HSE has delivered a significant amount of work over a relatively short period, there is still much more to do with some of the biggest challenges still ahead. Given the legislation on manual handling and display screen equipment has been in place for over 25 years, there is a plethora of supporting information on how to manage the risks of musculoskeletal disorders. While employers and employees who are familiar with the tools and guidance find them very useful, many have not yet accessed them. The challenge therefore is how to make sure those who need this guidance, have it.

Insight gathered from research we have undertaken indicates that, in certain sectors, the issue is not one of knowledge but of lack of motivation, inspiration and prioritisation. This is compounded by the impact of non-work factors (e.g. general health; lifestyle); co-existing health challenges; and changes in employment demographics (e.g. platform working; job insecurity). It is therefore clear that reducing work-related MSDs through the application and enforcement of health and safety legislation is important, but there is also a need to support and to influence wider health interventions where they are linked with work and employment. By working collectively, we can inspire and engage employers and employees to reject the prevailing culture of acceptance or inevitability with respect to musculoskeletal conditions. Perhaps the first step is to communicate using common language and terms that we all recognise and understand.

In closing, this year RoSPA’s annual October campaign (#OSHtober) will raise awareness of the dangers associated with moving and handling (specifically around MSDs) with a ‘back’ to basics overview covering best practice, legal compliance and improved health.

As part of this we’re giving away a free ‘Supporters pack’ which includes a wealth of free content. Not only that, when you sign-up to our ‘Supporters pack’ you’ll be entered into our prize draw for either a free Manual Handling Trainers or Safer People Handling Trainers or Display Screen Equipment course worth up to £1000.* To enter this competition all you have to do is complete the online questionnaire here.

Please get involved in sharing your experiences by using the hashtag #OSHtober.

Michael Paton
Principal Specialist Inspector/Senior Policy Advisor
Health and Safety Executive

*See website for terms and conditions.

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