Start acting now: Why early intervention is key to preventing chronic MSDs

One in every four people in the EU suffer from a chronic musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), such as back pain, upper limb disorder, or osteoporosis, says EU-Osha (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work). Europe’s workforce is ageing, and as a result, chronic MSDs are likely to become even more prevalent. Taking action as soon as symptoms appear is therefore vital to maintaining a healthy workforce, retaining workers, and boosting businesses.

What do we mean by ‘early intervention’?
Long-term absence from work can be avoided if swift action is taken as soon as symptoms appear. This action could include making adjustments to the work environment, providing professional support, or ensuring rapid referral and diagnosis, all of which can help to avoid further aggravation of a condition, restore function and prevent long-term disability.

Early intervention also means acting fast to take measures in order to identify and remedy the cause of work-related MSDs. This will help to prevent the development of any work-related musculoskeletal conditions before they become chronic.

Why is early intervention important?
Early intervention carries benefits for both workers and businesses alike. From the workers’ perspective, the sooner an MSD problem is managed, the less likely it will develop into a painful, chronic condition.

For businesses, not only is the retention of experienced employees important, but it is also simpler and cheaper to intervene before the condition worsens. Any individual adjustments are likely to be easier and less expensive to make in the early stages of the development of a condition. Investments made now will pay off in the long-run.

How does early intervention work?
For early intervention to be successful there needs to be open communication in the workplace. Employers should have a system in place for workers to report symptoms as soon as they arise. If workers do not feel able to speak openly with their manager, they may try to hide their problem, which will contribute to the development of the condition and increase the likelihood of it affecting their performance at work. Hidden conditions will also prevent the company from providing support to the worker.

Employers need to listen to the worker and act on the conversation, showing that they support the individual. In addition, they can work with employees to proactively look for MSD hazards, screen for the early signs of work-related MSDs, and implement preventive measures to avoid the apparition of a disorder.

The earlier preventive measures can be implemented, the more effective they will be. Making simple adjustments, such as changes to workplace furniture, work organisation, contractual arrangements, working environments (particularly in the areas of noise, lighting and vibrations), activities or routines can be relatively easy to adopt in the early stages.

To support continued working or the return to work following a period of absence due to sickness, joined-up communication between the worker, their healthcare provider and their employer, line manager, or HR team must be clear and effective. Healthcare providers can provide advice, with the permission of the worker, as well as contributing to the solution by providing and promoting fast access to diagnosis and treatment.

Some employers with an older workforce, or those working in industries with the regular presence of specific MSD risk factors, may wish to provide workers with access to physiotherapy to prevent the development or further aggravation of any conditions.

What does this look like in practice?
Early intervention was highly effective in the case of a 60-year-old researcher and consultant who experienced sore and painful symptoms in her shoulders, wrists and fingers, mainly because of the long periods of computer-based data entry and report writing required for her job.

After reporting the symptoms to her employer, the employee’s line manager immediately contacted an ergonomist to carry out a detailed risk assessment of the working environment, and the HR team enlisted the support of an occupational health physician to provide a professional assessment of the disorder.

As a result, a number of changes were made, the employee was provided with specialised tools and equipment and her workstation was adjusted to be more ergonomic. To lessen the strain on the individual employee, typing tasks were spread out among the wider team. She was also offered more flexibility in her daily job, such as the opportunity to take regular breaks to avoid the overuse of her wrists.

The measures brought benefits to the employee, the wider team, and the business in general. Most notably, the employee no longer had to work in pain and discomfort. The business was able to retain an expert employee and keep her working throughout the adjustments and, thanks to the speed at which her line manager and HR team intervened, the process was relatively inexpensive and simple. What’s more, the adjustments made the workplace more inclusive, providing ergonomic tools for other colleagues to use and illustrating to all that OSH-focused dialogues are taken seriously.

The EU-Osha will be publishing a series of articles focused on chronic MSDs over the coming months. You will find more information on the EU-OSHA’s Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign.