9 Unusual Ways to Detect Musculoskeletal Disorders
9 unusual ways to detect musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace
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Imagine you had X-ray vision like Superman.

So, you could see the throbbing injury in your employee’s back.

Or you had a signal tower light flashing yellow, red or green to help you detect musculoskeletal disorders in your workers.

flashing signal lights to detect MSD
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Sadly, that’s ain’t gonna happen, is it?

Reasons Why Your Employees Won’t Report Their Injuries

People are not machine. Unlike machines, we’re unpredictable. We make decisions based on many variables.

Besides, your employees might be unwilling to cough up information about their injury. Maybe out of fear or doubt that their pain is work-related. It could be that they’re unwilling to give up their safety record incentive. Or perhaps, they’ve accepted that the pain they feel is part of doing their job. Or they don’t want to be labelled ‘the overbearing complainer’.

It could even be that they feel that they can self-manage their injury; “See a physio and I’ll be OK” they think.

Or maybe, reporting injuries in your workplace is convoluted.

So you see, relying purely on your workers reporting their injury complaints shouldn’t be the only way to detect musculoskeletal disorders.

How Would You Then Know When They are Injured?


“Become a detective and look out for warning signals musculoskeletal disorder gives off.”

‘’Why is this necessary?’’

looking out for waring signs of musculosskeletal disorders
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The only person that know when he/she is injured is the worker. Relying solely on them to report their injury could be like waiting for the crows to feed you crumbs.

What you need to do is climb up the crow’s nest and lookout for warning signs. Look out for tell-tale signs of injury.

Because the devastating consequences of musculoskeletal disorder in your company make it impossible to turn a blind eye.

Consequences of Musculoskeletal Disorders in Your Workplace

Let’s take some example:

Sonny, who gets injured from repetitive picking and packing of small boxes goes of sick for 5 days. Production output slows.

Barbara gets injured from prolonged standing. She sues her company. Company coffers burdened with litigation fees.

Nicole hasn’t been to work for 30 days now. As well as Richard and Peter. In fact, attendance has dropped significantly. You can’t effectively schedule work for your workforce.

Alex has just had it. His carpal tunnel syndrome has started again. He’s tired of experiencing pain every time he holds a held-held tool. He quits. Now you must recruit a replacement.

Maria can’t stop her hand from twitching every time she hand-stitches. She ruins the fine details on the arm rest. Error. Discard and repeat. Waste.

Ways to Detect Musculoskeletal Disorder

signals showing warning signals to detect musculoskeletal disorders
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Musculoskeletal disorder can eat away at many areas of your company. Choking the life source. Your workforce. Unless it’s stopped or curtailed.

And looking out for its warning signals helps you manage it successfully.

So if your worker is not spilling the beans, these are some unusual ways to detect musculoskeletal disorders in your workplace;

1. Complaint of Pain or Discomfort

Your employee might not even tell you. You might hear a ‘hush’ here and a ‘hash’ there. Or hear it from their line manager. But you’ll hear it, alright. You’ll hear about a team struggling with back pain or the individual complaining of shoulder pain.

They would report that their pain is constant at work, intermittent with certain job tasks, absent at rest. They might describe pain as;  

  1. Sharp pain
  2. Shooting pain
  3. Stabbing pain
  4. Twinges
  5. Ache
  6. Bruised
  7. Pins and needles
  8. Numbness
  9. Tightness
  10. Localised pain
  11. Burning pain
  12. Gnawing pain
  13. Searing pain

They could also complain of pain and;

  • swelling,
  • redness,
  • stiffness,
  • clicking or grating sounds
  • bruising

Find a simple system to collect this complaint. For example, filling out an Employee Discomfort Survey or an assigned contact – someone they can easily reach out to.

2. Refusal to Use Equipment And Tools

Have you ever worn a shoe that didn’t fit? A beautiful expensive pair but was too painful to wear.  I bet you never worn them again, right?

That’s the same with working with work tools and equipment. The mouse too big for the hand. The plier too small. The worktop height too high or the machine that vibrates too much.

Because of the mismatch, the tools begin to hurt your employees. A twitch. A searing pain. Throbbing pain. Sharp pain. Numbness.

Eventually, your employees refuse to use the tool. And like your beautiful expensive shoe, they put down their tools.

Avoid the blame game.

Use this as an opportunity to figure out what went wrong and learn from it.

‘What hurt?’

‘When did it start?’

‘How do you use the tool?’

‘For how long?’

3. Avoiding Job Tasks

I upgraded my vacuum cleaner to this powerful, dirt-sucking animal of a machine. It did the job but was too heavy. I hated lifting it up the stairs. My back groaned. My hand ached after dragging it up and down the many floors.

Now, I have learnt new tricks: do other tasks and avoid hovering.

Washing up has become a friend. Doing laundry. Airing clothes. Anything but hovering.

Same with your employees. If a job become painful or cause pain they would try and avoid it.

And like me, they wouldn’t admit it’s because of the pain. They could make excuses. Try to palm it off to other co-workers. Delay doing it. Do it in a hurry. Get a doctor’s note (not saying it’s wrong). Just saying, they might not admit it.

What should you do?

  • Ask them: Ask if the task hurts or if they get pain or discomfort. Find out if they need help to make their task pain-free. Ask what you can do to help.

Just ask.

And then follow through.

a. Conduct a Job Analysis:

it could be in the form of a checklist, ergonomic assessment or reviewing their job tasks to suss out the musculoskeletal disorder risks.

b. Follow their suggestion:

I’m a great believer that workers have the solutions to the health risk inherent in their jobs. Their suggestions are gold nuggets can you can harness.

c. Ask their co-workers:  

Not every worker doing the same job task would suffer from an injury. There are many variables that increases the risks. But asking their co-workers might give you an insight into how and what they are doing differently to avoid injury.

Similarly, co-workers could be at a different stage of musculoskeletal disorder and would assume their injury is unique to them. Asking them, helps you map out a trend that gives an insight to the pattern of injury risks inherent in their job.

Start simple and make changes before everyone boycotts the task. (not ideal).

4. High Rate of Sickness Absence

I know you know this. Sickness absence is something we all dread. But it is an amazing tool to use to detect musculoskeletal disorder. So, when it does happen, find out why.

Conduct a Trend Analysis:

  • dig out your past reports or accident log book
  • find out the prevailing cause of absence?
  • types of workers affected?
  • what part of the body were injured?
  • how long were they off-sick for?
  • was there a recurring pattern?

Use this data to your advantage to find patterns that would lead you to the root of the injury.

Then follow through.

 Conduct a risk assessment of these ‘hot spots’. That way, you maximise your resources and time.

5. Your Employees Bringing In Accessories

I’m not talking about flower pots or a collage of pictures.

‘’Have you seen them?’’

A wrist brace in one hand or a knee brace. Bandages wrapped around the elbow, knee or foot. Taping around the neck. Magnetic bracelets. Extra padding placed on a tool e.g., foam padding wrapped around the handle. Or a big book placed under a table or even monitor?

‘’Are you nodding? Can you see it now?’’

Those are signals that your employee is hurting. They are trying to change their work tools to be comfy (it’s human nature).  But you can help them even more.

Find out why they are wearing it and what discomfort they are trying to improve. Use that to detect musculoskeletal disorder in your workplace. The more of that you see, the higher the risk of musculoskeletal disorder.

Then follow through.

A risk assessment. A job analysis. Task analysis. REBA. RULA. Manual handling assessment.

Get to the root cause of the injury and weed it out.

6. Your Employee Rubbing or Stretching their Muscles

RUbbing the painful area another way to detect musculoskeletal disorders
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A study by Prof Patrick Haggard, University College London, revealed that rubbing or touching an injured part of our body reduces the pain. It’s quite common to rub the area that hurts and so if you see it happening, know it’s another address it.

Again, ask you employee.

‘’But I don’t want to intrude by asking them personal questions.’’

No, you aren’t asking just to gossip. You’re asking because you care. You think it’s a warning sign of musculoskeletal disorder and you want to help. If your staff understand that, they’ll be willing to share.

7. High Turnover Rates

In 2016, statistics from Household Labour Force Survey revealed that injury and illness were one of the top 5 reasons people resigned or left their last jobs.

That ain’t good,right?

But you can use their exit survey to get to the root of the problem. Also ask in the survey for suggestions to improve work.

‘’Is there any way we could have improved the tasks?’’ you might ask.

Don’t forget to… say it with me,

“Follow through’’

8. Hospital Appointment

Your employee might not always say when they are off to a hospital appointment. But it’s an area that you can glean information and detect musculoskeletal disorder.

People that are injured go to the hospital, right?

So, if your employee book time off for a hospital appointment, ask them if they injury is work-related or affected by work. And ask what you can do to ease their symptoms. If work aggravates their injury, a risk assessment would help root out the risks.

9. Physical Signs of Injury

Another warning signs of work-related musculoskeletal disorders are of course its symptoms. Although, I should clarify that not all injuries are work-related. Some could be caused by leisure or home activities.

But it’s difficult to ignore the purple swelling on your employee’s ankle. The yelp heard when they bend. The sling decorating the shoulder. Or the precarious hobble down the corridor.

             Again, ask.

Find out if any work task is causing or exacerbating their symptoms.

Be a Detector

Health and injury is a very personal thing. Sometimes, people feel ashamed to blurt it out. Or they might feel it’s none of your business. But you need this information to help. And most times they want you to help.

But one thing could be in the way.


Your employees have to trust you enough to break that ‘embarrassing’, ‘ashamed’, ‘too personal’ barrier. They must trust you care and you genuinely want to help.

But trust is earned.

The only way you earn their trust is by following through. Do something proactive with the information you’ve been given. Risk assess. Train. Simplify your reporting process. Make better their working condition. And like any culture, trust builds up. And eventually your employees become comfortable to walk into your office and report their injury.

And oh! don’t forget to let them know you have followed through.

Yeah seriously. Shout it from the roof tops. Staff bulletins, memo, team meetings. Let them know you helped them. And before you know it, you’ll be the go-to person to report injury. You’ll be building the culture of trust. You’ll become The Don.

Share with us

What else do you do to detect musculoskeletal disorder in your workplace? What do you think would be easy to implement?

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By Ugo Akpala-Alimi

Ugo is a Workplace Musculoskeletal Health Expert. She is a Chartered Physiotherapist with a masters degree in Ergonomics. 15+ years' experience. Treated 9,000+ patients. Conducted work assessments++. Worked with companies including BP, UKPN. On a mission to help managers reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders and create 'ouchless' workplaces. Hasn't yet gotten the magic elixir for injury-resistant workers (still busy concocting).


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