Musculoskeletal disorders

What are musculoskeletal disorders?

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 and shoulders. Symptoms may include

  • pain
  • aching
  • discomfort
  • numbness
  • tingling
  • swelling.

Workers who suffer from MSDs may also have a reduced ability to do tasks, 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.

What activities cause MSDs?

The biggest cause of injury is manual handling, which includes lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. Handling heavy loads is not the only cause of injury - MSDs can also result from poor design of the workplace, equipment or a task. These aspects of work activity are covered by ergonomics, which aims to fit the task to the worker.

Manual handling accounts for over 20% of the over-three-day injuries reported to the Health and Safety Executive from the offshore industry. As most back injuries go unreported, these represent only a portion of the problem.

Several factors can make manual handling tasks difficult and potentially hazardous. Offshore, common factors, offshore associated with MSDs include:

  • the weight of loads such as equipment, process machinery and materials in sacks and drums
  • working environments that are often confined or promote poor working posture
  • the nature of the floors, which may be slippery or hinder the use of handling equipment
  • high level of repetition in some tasks, for example sack handling
  • difficulty of using handling equipment such as cranes and hoists on some installations.

Who is affected?

MSDs and back pain can occur to any offshore personnel, not just those engaged in the obvious strenuous handling tasks, eg drillers, roustabouts. Personnel in support activities such as catering, maintenance and helicopter operations also perform many manual handling tasks.

What are my legal duties?

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 require employers and self-employed people to decide whether and how they can avoid manual tasks that involve a risk of injury. If employers cannot avoid manual handling where there is a risk of injury, they must assess their manual handling operations and reduce the risk of injury to the lowest level reasonably practicable

Checklist for good control practice

There are several ways in which manual handling problems can be reduced or eliminated. These include:

  • avoiding manual handling, eg automation or changing the overall process
  • redesigning the load
  • redesigning the task
  • redesigning the working environment
  • introducing mechanical handling aids.

Here are some tips for developing successful solutions to manual handling problems.

  • Prioritise your activities - tackle serious risks affecting a number of employees.
  • Find and evaluate a few possible solutions. Don't always take the first idea put forward.
  • Seek the views of worker who perform the task. Their involvement in developing solutions will lead to better solutions which are more readily accepted.
  • Try out the solutions and modify them before full implementation.
  • Monitor the solutions to make sure they remain effective
  • Keep abreast of new technological developments.

Managing MSD risks effectively means that you will also need to consider individual capability, as strength, height and fitness vary. Some workers may have an existing injury that might limit their ability. Some may also have a poor appreciation of the risks due to their age and/or experience. All workers should receive information, instruction and training on manual handling. One of the best ways to get this across is through work induction and through a regular programme of 'toolbox talks'.

Updated 2023-09-07