What are Musculo-skeletal Disorders (MSDs)?


What are Musculo-skeletal Disorders (MSDs)?

MSDs, as defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), “include problems such as low back pain, joint injuries and repetitive strain injuries of various sorts”. Areas that can create a risk include (HSE):

  • Repetitive and heavy lifting
  • Bending and twisting repeating an action too frequently
  • Uncomfortable working position
  • Exerting too much force
  • Working too long without breaks
  • Adverse working environment (e.g. hot. cold)
  • Psychosocial factors (e.g. high job demands, time pressures and lack of control)
  • Not receiving and acting upon reports of symptoms quick enough


The HSE has identified MSDs as a priority because although “they have the potential to ruin people’s lives and they impose heavy costs on employers and society, “you can do things to prevent or minimise MSDs and prevention measures are cost effective”.

Recent Research: Staff

  • 55% of all teachers in locally maintained schools and academies in England took sick leave for a total average of 8.1 days (Department of Education, 2013) this equates to 4.5 days per teacher.
  • In 2011-2012 a total of 2.2 million teaching days were lost due to sickness absence.
  • There is a risk of short-term problems turning into long-term absence. In the UK, once a person has been on incapacity-related welfare benefits for one year, they are statistically more likely to die than return to work (Bevan 2012).
  • MSDs in education professionals decrease productivity at work due to sick leave, absenteeism and early retirement (Erick & Smith 2011). As the retirement age increases, this may have implications for staff and schools.
  • The number of 5 GCSE A*-C grades attained in a given school decreases when more supply teachers are needed (Department of Education and Skills 2006). Supply cover is costly and not afforded by all schools, but if not provided and cover is provided internally, pupil’s loose additional teacher and/or assistant time.
  • A systematic review has found that the prevalence of self-reported MSD among schoolteachers ranges between 39% and 95% (Erick 2011).

In 2011, an anonymous questionnaire was written with Voice The Union for education professionals and the National Union of Teachers to gain an overview of the situation and challenges experienced in UK school and nurseries, titled “Work-related Musculoskeletal disorders in early years and primary teaching professionals”. 705 questionnaires were received. 

Key Findings

  • Reported career prevalence of work-related MSDs  98% (Fig 1)
  • 88% reported experiencing back pain (Fig 1)
  • 82% experienced MSDs once a week or more (Fig 2)
  • 38% had been off work
  • 70% had received treatment to ease their symptoms (NHS, private or both)
  • Only 8% had officially recorded it
  • 99.5% thought Work-related MSDs in the education profession were under-reported (Fig 3)
  • Work activities causing discomfort were: 91% bending over low tables, 85% sitting on children’s chairs, 71% kneeling at low tables/on the floor (Fig 4)

fig1In addition to the above, open responses included discomfort in: arms, wrists, feet and ankles. Several respondents had received hip, knee and back surgery to reduce their pain – two Reception staff members in their 30s had undergone back surgery.

The above chart also highlights that the type of MSD reported is not dependent on service Years.  A similar level of back pain was reported by staff who had worked with young children for less than 5 years as it was in those who had worked over 20 years, so it is not necessarily age related.fig2

82% of respondents reported experiencing discomfort once a week or more. Over a third reported daily pain.

38% had been off work and 70% had received treatment to ease their pain – either self-financed/private, NHS or, in a quarter of cases, both. Private treatment included: physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, massage, podiatry and orthopaedic surgery.

Only 8% of respondents had officially recorded their work-related discomfort, despite nearly half visiting their GP and 83% discussing it with friends and family. 11% did not mention their discomfort to anyone and only 1% contacted their Union.

A UK sample of 204 children aged 7-15 years old  found that 72% of primary aged children and 64% of secondary aged children had experienced back and/or neck pain. 89% had not reported their pain to anyone, yet 80% wanted to know how to keep their backs healthy.

Top 3 reported risk factors for primary aged children were sitting in assembly, sitting on the floor in class, sitting on school chairs. The top 3 problematic activities for secondary aged pupils were: carrying school bags, sitting on school chairs and sitting working at their school desk.

Back health in staff and pupils may not have been considered an important health issue in your school yet, given these statistics, combined with the fact that there are simple, effective measures which can be put in place to help, it would perhaps be useful to explore in your school?

Please do get in touch if you require any help or advice.

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