The term musculoskeletal disorder (or ‘MSD') refers to an injury that affects the muscles, joints, tendons or spinal discs. Such injuries are most likely to affect the back, shoulders and neck, and legs. Symptoms may include pain, aching, discomfort, numbness, tingling and swelling.
Workers who suffer from MSDs may have a reduced ability to do tasks, as well as pain or discomfort, and the most serious cases can result in permanent disability. An ache or discomfort can, unless spotted and dealt with effectively, turn into a long-term or ‘chronic' injury.
The construction industry has one of the highest rates of MSDs. The biggest cause of injury is manual handling, which includes lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. However, handling heavy objects is not the only cause of injury - MSDs can also result from doing a task repetitively, even if the load is relatively light (eg bricklaying), or where the person's body position is less than ideal (eg tying rebar). Other common tasks associated with MSDs include:
MSDs and back pain occur in many construction trades. Workers commonly affected include bricklayers, scaffolders, groundworkers, electricians and demolition workers, as well as general labourers.
The Manual Handling Operations Regulations require employers and self-employed people to decide whether and how they can avoid manual tasks that involve a risk of injury.
The first priority is to avoid the hazard - where this is not reasonably practicable there is a requirement to assess risks and to take effective action. Ask is whether the load needs to be handled at all, or can the work be done in a different way?
Example: Deliver materials (eg plasterboard) to the point of use rather than carry, push or pull them from the site entrance.
If manual handling is unavoidable, then can the operation(s) be automated or mechanised? Remember that introducing automation or mechanisation (eg lift trucks or powered conveyors) may create other, different risks that will need precautions. Automated plant will probably require maintenance and repair.
Decisions on the use of mechanisation or automation are best made when plant or systems of work are being designed. Raw materials can be handled in ways that eliminate or reduce the need for manual handling. The layout of the process can often be designed so that it is easier to distribute materials, which may also benefit productivity and reduce the risk of spoilage.