Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)

Musculoskeletal disorders (muscular aches, pains and discomfort) are the most common work-related ill health/ injury reported by cleaners.

Managing the risks effectively can significantly reduce the risk of work-related MSDs to those employed within this industry.

What are musculoskeletal disorders?

The term musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) describes a variety of strain, sprain, and overuse problems affecting the body's muscles, joints and nerves. The back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs are particularly at risk. Problems include everything from backache and slipped discs, to upper limb disorders, tenosynovitis, pain, numbness, swelling and tingling in the hands and wrists. These conditions are often caused or made worse by work activities.

Why are cleaners at risk?

Cleaning work is demanding and labour intensive. Many tasks involve using cleaning machines and heavy manual work, including mopping, wiping surfaces, polishing, moving rubbish bags, furniture and equipment, putting strain on the heart, muscles and other tissues. Cleaners are often required to work in awkward postures for long periods which may lead to long-term damage.

Cleaners work in buildings which are generally planned for other workers and not designed with cleaning in mind where issues such as access, the location of taps and storage facilities, and the use of unsuitable floor materials can also pose problems.

What the law says

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSW Act) requires employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees and to ensure that those affected by their activities are not exposed to risk. Health and safety law also applies to self-employed persons who create a risk for others.

Other legislation including The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 builds upon the HSW Act and includes duties on employers to assess and control risks.

Recognising a problem

Symptoms may occur suddenly, or there may be a more gradual onset often with initial tingling, then slight swelling or soreness, which may persist and gradually worsen.

Indicators of musculoskeletal problems in the workplace include:

  • increased sickness absence, accident and injury reports
  • reports of pain and discomfort from cleaners or reports on their behalf  from safety/union representatives
  • cleaners wearing splints, bandages or back supports
  • low motivation and dissatisfaction among cleaners – not wanting to do certain tasks
  • cleaners adapting their own equipment

Managing the risks – who should do what

Who actually does what will vary with the size of the organisation and whether or not cleaners are in-house or contracted. However the key tasks and responsibilities in various roles are as follows:

Employers of cleaners

You have a legal duty to:

  • manage the risk of musculoskeletal disorders that your workers may be exposed to
  • implement risk control measures identified by the assessment
  • ensure that systems are in place to enable staff to work safely select equipment which will enable cleaners to carry out their job safely
  • ensure equipment is inspected and maintained at appropriate intervals
  • provide PPE where required
  • ensure appropriate training is provided to all  workers
  • consult safety representatives and workers about issues affecting worker safety
  • report certain accidents and cases of ill health to the regulator

HSE's Health and safety basics for your business site provides basic information on what employers must do to make sure their businesses comply with health and safety law.

Cleaning contractors working in clients premises

In addition to their responsibilities as employers, in the tab above, contractors must also:

  • agree liaison arrangements with clients for co-operation and co-ordination of their work to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the workplace
  • ensure employees are aware of the client's health and safety procedures
  • provide clients with information to allow them to discharge their health and safety duties


As a client you should:

  • select a suitable contractor – ensure they have sufficient skills, knowledge and experience to do the job safely
  • set up liaison arrangements for co-operation and co-ordination with contractors to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the workplace
  • provide contractors with information on the workplace, any risks cleaners may be exposed to and the measures in place to control those risks
  • implement arrangements for managing and supervising the work of contractors and agree the nature of risk controls before work starts
  • inform contractors of emergency evacuation procedures

Cleaning supervisors

Supervisors must be provided with suitable information, instruction and training to enable them to discharge their duties. Supervisors should:

  • ensure staff are trained and monitor them to ensure they are working safely
  • address unsafe or unhealthy working practices when identified
  • ensure sufficient materials and equipment are available allowing cleaning tasks to be completed safely and efficiently
  • ensure cleaners are aware of health and accident reporting systems
  • investigate and report to their employer where pain and discomfort are reported by cleaning staff
  • help with any health and safety issues reported by cleaners

Safety representatives

Whether appointed by a trade union or by employees to represent them, you should:

  • notify the employer of any unsafe or unhealthy work practices
  • investigate and report where pain and discomfort are reported by cleaning staff
  • help with or conduct risk assessments with supervisors
  • help with any health and safety issues reported by cleaners


You have a duty to take reasonable care for yourself and others who may be affected by your actions at work and to cooperate with your employer to allow him/her to comply with their legal duties. You should:

  • follow safe working methods
  • use equipment in accordance with instructions and training
  • report any problems with or damage to equipment
  • report any work practices causing pain or discomfort
  • report any work-related accidents or ill health

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Updated 2024-02-09