July 25, 2021

Identifying musculoskeletal disorders in the construction industry and how to prevent them

With figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealing that more than 28m working days were lost to musculoskeletal conditions in the UK in 2018*, protecting the physical wellbeing of employees has never been more important. The construction industry is one of the UK’s largest employers, so ensuring musculoskeletal disorders are kept to a minimum in this sector is particularly important.

Mark Fletcher, Clinical Director at occupational physiotherapy provider Physio Med, which works with large employers such as the NHS and the John Lewis Partnership, investigates the issue of musculoskeletal conditions in the construction industry and the ways in which they can be prevented.

The cost of employees taking time off due to musculoskeletal and mental health conditions could reach £3.8bn in the next five years, while the cost of reduced productivity – also known as presenteeism – is forecast to reach £84bn**, according to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr).

The UK construction industry employs approximately 3.1m people and, with the average worker losing 4.4 working days to sickness absence in 2018, the number of working days lost within the industry totalled nearly 14m.

It has never been more important for employers to safeguard the physical wellbeing of their employees and take proactive steps to reduce instances of musculoskeletal conditions (MSKs) in order to reduce levels of absenteeism and ensure productivity and profitability levels aren’t affected.

However, this is easier said than done in the construction industry where many job roles are physically demanding and injuries to the back, neck, upper limbs and knees are common due to employees spending significant periods of time standing, carrying out repetitive activities and operating heavy equipment. In addition, repeatedly bending, twisting and lifting can cause tension and stiffness which, if left unattended, can develop into more serious MSKs requiring treatment.

While any workers that are regularly required to lift and carry will have undergone their manual handling training, it is vital to keep the advice and guidance at the front of their minds, so managers should remind employees of the simple steps they can take to help prevent MSKs whenever possible.

  • When picking items up or putting them down, keep backs straight, bend from the knees and be careful not to twist. Bending from the waist puts strain on the upper back, lower back and hips and should be avoided.
  • When carrying items, avoid twisting and overreaching as this can harm the lower back and shoulders. Hold items close to the body, bend at the knees and move the feet – don’t twist the back. Before carrying anything heavy, prepare by doing light back stretching exercises first.
  • Repeatedly lifting heavy loads can cause repetitive strain injuries to the knees and elbows, so always hold items close to the body and maintain a straight back at all times. Twist from the feet, not the back or shoulders, and never try to carry something which is a struggle to lift – get a colleague to help instead.

Unfortunately, even when every necessary precaution has been taken, MSKs can still occur, so employers need to provide support to staff to help them recover from injuries and then remain fit for work. With access to NHS physiotherapy via GP referral currently taking up to 14 weeks, one of the most effective options is to provide employees with access to an occupational physiotherapy provision that allows them to have any MSKs quickly assessed by a qualified physiotherapist, speeding up recovery times and reducing the risk of future injury.

If that isn’t possible, there are simple exercises that employees can carry out at work to ease any pain that occurs. These include:

Lower back stretches

This simple exercise stretches out the tissue in the lower part of the back, alleviating pressure and stress on the area:

• Sit in a chair and place hands on the lower part of the back just above belt level

• Arch the back and gently press in with the hands to assist the movement

• Hold the back in this arched position for two seconds, then return to the start position and repeat five times.

Side bends

This exercise helps maintain movement in the lower back:

• Stand up tall with arms on the outside of the thighs

• Slowly bend sideways by sliding one hand down one thigh towards the floor

• Slowly return to the upright position and repeat on the other side. Repeat five times.

Shoulder lifts

A simple but effective exercise for stretching stiff or tight shoulders and alleviating stress in the area that should be carried out twice per day:

  • Sit upright with a slight curve in the base of the spine, looking forward with the chin tucked in;
  • With arms relaxed on each side of the body, lift the shoulders towards the ears as high as possible, hold for two seconds, then lower to the start position and repeat ten times;
  • Then, from the same starting position, pull the shoulders backwards and lower them as far as possible. Hold for two seconds, then return to the start position and repeat ten times.

Neck retraction

A great exercise for stretching the tissue in the neck that also helps reduce pressure on the shoulders, and can be carried out three times a day:

  • Sit up straight with a slight curve in the base of the spine and focus on an object at eye level;
  • Without moving the shoulders, bring the head back and tuck the chin in. Hold for three seconds;
  • Slowly return to the start position and repeat five times.

Workers in the construction industry are not all on construction sites of course, with many also likely to spend long periods of time sitting at a desk or in front of a computer – another common cause of back issues. Sitting for five hours a day, five days a week equates to 1,175 hours – or almost 50 days – every year. Unfortunately, sitting for longer than 20 minutes has negative effects on the body, including an increase in musculoskeletal problems such as back and neck problems, while extended periods of sitting can affect the spine, neck and shoulders. This, in turn, can also affect the arms, elbows and wrists.

In order to prevent these negative effects, employees should move at regular intervals using the ‘20/20’ principle – 20 seconds away from the sitting position every 20 minutes, even if only to walk a few paces.

Sitting incorrectly can also cause back pain by putting extra pressure on various body parts, so another way to avoid back problems is by adopting the correct sitting position.

The most important thing to remember when sitting is to maintain the curvature of the lower spine, which should curve away from the back of the chair. The best way to make sure this happens is to support it, either by purchasing a chair with lumbar support built-in or by placing cushions or a rolled-up towel at the base of the spine.

Regular activity in the incorrect position, or carrying out tasks incorrectly, can be bad for musculoskeletal health and have a huge impact on the long-term health and mobility of workers.

No employee should have to work while in pain, so it is vital that employers provide them with the support and advice necessary to keep them pain free. By providing access to services such as physiotherapy, employers will help their employees remain fit and well, and help ensure a healthy bottom line for their businesses.

Mark Fletcher, Clinical Director at Physio Med