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The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has launched its 2020-2022 campaign – Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load – which focuses on work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The launch marks the start of a programme of events and actions aimed at raising awareness of this issue – which affects millions of workers across Europe – and how to tackle it.

Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load

The Healthy Workplaces Campaign 2020-2022, Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load, aims to raise awareness of work-related MSDs and disseminate information about how they can be prevented and managed. The campaign is coordinated at national level by EU-OSHA’s focal points and supported by official campaign and media partners and the Enterprise Europe Network.

Safety and Health at Work

Campaign highlights will include the European Weeks for Safety and Health at Work (October 2020, 2021 and 2022), a Good Practice Exchange event in March 2022, and the Good Practice Awards Ceremony and Healthy Workplaces Summit (both in November 2022).

3 in 5 workers suffer from MSDs

Despite legislation and initiatives aimed at preventing them, around three in every five workers suffer from MSDs and they remain the most common work-related health complaint in Europe, affecting workers in all jobs and sectors. Repetitive movements, prolonged sitting and heavy lifting are just some of the risk factors that contribute to these conditions, which can affect the muscles, joints, tendons or bones. The negative impact that they have on workers’ quality of life is clear.

EU-OSHA launches Healthy Workplaces Campaign 2020-2022

At a press conference in Brussels to mark the official launch of the campaign, Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, highlighted the urgent need to take action:

Many of u – 3 in 5 – have experienced backache, stiff muscles or a sore neck as a result of our work. This can severely affect our everyday lives, our productivity, and it can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. With the pandemic affecting how we live and work, we can all benefit from the guidance and resources published today.

Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights

German Presidency of the Council of the EU

The support of social partners and European institutions is also invaluable, with the German Presidency of the Council of the EU recognising the need to act on MSDs and pledging its commitment. Hubertus Heil, German Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, commented:

MSDs affect every country in Europe. It affects all of us in different ways. Therefore, it must be managed in every European workplace – from factory floors and hairdressing salons to hospital wards and offices. Therefore we give our full backing to the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign.

Hubertus Heil, German Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs

MSDs also incur significant costs for employers and national health systems. Christa Sedlatschek, EU-OSHA Executive Director, emphasised that:

In addition to the human suffering caused, workers miss out on so many fulfilling aspects of their private and working lives. Those workers with MSDs are absent from work more often and for longer periods, are likely to be less productive while at work and often take early retirement. This is bad news for businesses and a huge burden on national economies. This campaign will highlight that early intervention and rehabilitation are vital and entirely possible. By working together and adopting good practice now, we can prevent MSDs in future generations of workers.

Christa Sedlatschek, EU-OSHA Executive Director

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) contributes to making Europe a safer, healthier and more productive place to work. The Agency researches, develops, and distributes reliable, balanced, and impartial safety and health information and organises pan-European awareness raising campaigns. Set up by the European Union in 1994 and based in Bilbao, Spain, the Agency brings together representatives from the European Commission, Member State governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations, as well as leading experts in each of the EU Member States and beyond.

work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) - back pain massage - Health

Measures to prevent and manage MSDs are often simple and inexpensive, and this is one of the key messages of the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign. The campaign will reach out to workers and employers across all sectors, with a particular focus on high-risk sectors, such as health care and early education.

Safety and Health at Work

Supporting workers with chronic MSDs to remain in work will also be a key focus, along with the need to consider psychosocial risks and worker diversity, and to adopt collaborative approaches to MSD management – involving workers, employers, healthcare providers and other stakeholders.

Special attention will be given to emerging risks, arising from, for instance, digitalisation and new technologies and ways of organising work. This is particularly timely in light of COVID-19, which has forced many workers out of offices and into working from home. MSDs and home-based teleworking is a priority area for the campaign.

What is the issue of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)?

Millions of workers across Europe suffer from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). About three in every five workers in the European Union report MSD complaints, based on data from the sixth European Working Conditions Survey.

Work-related MSDs are impairments of bodily structures, such as muscles, joints and tendons, that are caused or aggravated primarily by work or the effects of the immediate work environment. They can be highly detrimental to an individual’s quality of life and ability to work, and are one of the most common causes of disability, sick leave and early retirement.

The most common work-related MSDs are backache and pains in the upper limbs. Physical, organisational, psychosocial and individual factors can contribute to their development.

According to the 2019 European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks, the most frequently identified risk factor in the EU-27 is repetitive hand or arm movements (reported by 65 % of establishments). Other MSD-related risks include prolonged sitting (61 %) — often considered a new or emerging MSD risk — lifting or moving people or heavy loads (52 %), time pressure (45 %), and tiring or painful positions (31 %).

Although MSDs are preventable, they remain the most common work-related health problem in Europe. This is cause for concern not only because of their effects on the health of individual workers, but also because of their detrimental impact on businesses and national economies.

Why are MSDs so important?

Despite efforts to prevent them, MSDs remain at the top of the list of work-related health problems in Europe, and often occur in combination with other health problems. This inevitably reduces individuals’ quality of life and capacity to work, damaging businesses and economies.

Absence from work due to MSDs accounts for a high proportion of working days lost in the EU. Workers with MSDs also have longer periods of absence on average than those without health problems.

Work-related MSDs are one of the most common causes of disability and sick leave and are the most commonly recognised occupational disease in countries including France, Italy, Latvia and Spain.

A third of workers with MSDs and another health issue believe that they will not be able to continue doing their job to the age of 60 years.

In addition, MSDs cause individuals to be less productive while at work, with higher rates of ‘presenteeism’, that is, working while unwell, among those with MSDs than those without health problems.

This has a major impact in economic terms. Direct costs of work-related MSDs include resources used for health care (diagnosis and treatment of disease, and rehabilitation expenditure) and medicines, and workers’ compensation costs. Indirect costs include those resulting from disruptions to working teams, decreases in productivity, production delays and the replacement of sick workers (including the training of new employees), and costs related to absenteeism/presenteeism. These indirect costs are estimated to be several times higher than the direct costs for businesses.

It is vital, therefore, that employers are made aware of the issue and offered support and guidance in preventing or managing MSDs.

How can it be managed?

MSDs are preventable and manageable. Taking an integrated approach — based on the principles of the OSH Framework Directive — and promoting a prevention culture involving both employers and workers are key to tackling the issue.

  • Workplace risk assessment: this is fundamental for successful prevention and should involve preparation, assessment and the implementation of preventive and protective measures. The risk assessment process should be regularly reviewed and updated.
  • A combination of preventive measures to eliminate/control risks: this should be the top priority for any workplace. As MSDs are caused by multiple factors, a combined approach is best, for instance involving actions targeting the workplace (e.g. ergonomics), work organisation (e.g. allowing breaks), psychosocial factors (e.g. giving workers control over work pace) and workers (e.g. providing training on good postures).
  • Encourage worker participation: workers should be involved in identifying MSD risks and preventive solutions to help companies develop comprehensive policies on MSD management. EU-OSHA’s conversation starters for workplace discussions about MSDs can be used to facilitate group discussions in the workplace or during training.

As part of the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign, we have created a database of practical tools, guidance materials and good practice examples to help encourage worker participation and support workplaces in the management of MSDs.

Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign

MSDs can lead to lost work days, poor productivity and early retirement. The good news is that they can be managed simply and at low cost. The Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign aims to put MSDs at the top of the #OSH agenda.

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