Supervisor, prevent musculoskeletal symptoms

Being proactive is the best way you can promote musculoskeletal (MSK) health. Identify the physical workload factors of the work and take action in advance together with your employees and the occupational health services.

Deepen your understanding of physical workload factors

As a supervisor, you represent the employer, and it is the employer’s responsibility to identify the work’s workload factors and to prevent them from putting your employees’ health at risk. In addition to identifying the risks of work accidents, it is your duty to understand what the workload factors are, what kind of strain they cause and what can be done about them.

In the course of daily work, you develop a more up-to-date and accurate understanding of the workload and your employees’ situation than surveys carried out by external parties could ever reveal. This makes it possible for you to be proactive. Regularly discuss the workload, the resources and their significance with your employees. Keep up on your employees’ work situation and how they are performing. If something does not seem to be going smoothly, maintain a low threshold for starting to look for a solution together with your employees. Too early is better than too late!

Look at the big picture and identify physical workload factors

Look at the work system as a whole when evaluating the work of your employees and learning how to identify and reduce the physical workload factors caused by the work.

Look at

  • the work environment  
  • the tasks 
  • the work community  
  • the tools 
  • the work processes 
  • the work arrangements 
  • the employees. 

A change made to one part of this system will impact the other parts. It is important for you to observe whether the resulting impacts on the employees’ workload are positive or negative and whether the achieved impacts are sufficient or insufficient. By developing the work system as a whole, you will achieve results that allow you to prevent MSK symptoms and illnesses.

In the early stages of symptoms, you can

  • take the workload factors into account and make the necessary and possible changes  
  • encourage your employee to discuss the factors that hinder work  
  • encourage discussions about the possibilities and problems at work, especially related to musculoskeletal symptoms  
  • act in accordance with your workplace’s early support practices  
  • show an encouraging attitude towards work accommodation and continuing at work  
  • guide the employee to see an occupational health physiotherapist. 

Be available, discuss and listen

Can the workload and musculoskeletal symptoms be discussed at your workplace? Do you address issues when your employees raise them? Your employee who has symptoms may try to soldier on and put up with their symptoms by ignoring or hiding them. This can lead to prolonged symptoms, slower work and quality issues. Although individual factors, lifestyle and choices made outside of work affect the development of MSK symptoms, they do not protect against symptoms caused by strenuous work and recurrent strain. By making the employee feel guilty about symptoms that hinder working or belittling their symptoms you only prevent the issues from being addressed and fail to find solutions that could potentially benefit all employees. 

Build a workplace culture that encourages employees to bring to light workload factors and accident risks and talk about their MKS symptoms as early as possible. Strive to make it totally normal and acceptable at your workplace to ask for and receive support with a low threshold. Encourage employees to seek help from the occupational health services and be sure to carry out the necessary accommodation measures at the workplace.

Increase your competence in preventing MSK symptoms

One good practical way to reduce MSK symptoms is to learn to identify both the symptoms and the factors affecting them. 

  1. Increase your competence. Ask the employer to provide you with orientation and training. 
  2. Make sure that the orientation of new employees and other training provided to your employees include instructions on what they should do at the early stages of MSK symptoms and when they identify a work task that causes too much strain. 

As a supervisor, you play a key role. You can make a difference in preventing MSK symptoms by guiding and advising employees and by stressing the importance of the matter. The occupational health services and especially your occupational health physiotherapist can help you in this. 

Participate in the development of work and make a difference

You can make a difference when various development projects are implemented at the workplace. You know your employees’ work, so you should actively participate in developing the work. Here are some examples of how you can suggest measures that enhance smooth workflow and reduce harmful workload:

  1. Propose changes to the work processes that will enable you to eliminate the most strenuous tasks. 
  2. Strive to reduce the sustained strenuous work by, for example, providing the opportunity for work rotation or for breaking work into shorter phases so that it causes less strain. 
  3. Consider whether the repetition or the duration of strenuous work movements or postures could be reduced.  
  4. Propose the acquisition of more suitable tools (that weigh less, vibrate less, are adjustable) and equipment (lifts, conveyors, manipulators). 
  5. Schedule breaks for recovery and influence the content and means for effective recovery at work.

The occupational health services and ergonomics specialists are there to help you improve working conditions.

1. Make sure that physically strenuous work is varied

  • Plan the work so that it includes tasks involving distinct types of strain, for example, alternate use of the upper and lower limbs or walking, standing, and sitting. 
  • Balance the strain by making sure that both sides of the body are used equally when working. Both hands should be used equally, and back movements should be balanced. 
  • Alternate sedentary and standing work with physically active work phases. 

2. Make sure that the tools and the workstation are functional and that they can be adjusted to match the characteristics of different employees

  • There are not many average-sized people. Acquire tools, furniture and equipment that can be adjusted to suit the different employees’ measurements and optimise force production. 
  • Take the employees’ needs into account when designing and acquiring workstations and equipment. 

3. Make sure that the employees have the chance to recover sufficiently both at work and between shifts

  • Take workload factors into account when determining the duration, quantity, and content of recovery during work shifts. If physically strenuous work is performed in hot temperatures, more frequent breaks are needed than in cooler temperatures. 
  • Plan the work shifts so that there is enough recovery time between them, at least 11 hours. 
  • You can enhance recovery at work by, for example, organising restorative exercises and stretching sessions during breaks. 

4. Make sure that the temperature in the workspace is suitable or that it can be adjusted based on the amount of effort required by the work

  • If your employees’ work is physically strenuous, the work environment must be cooler. 
  • If your employees do physically strenuous work in a hot environment (e.g., in summer), the breaks and hydration must be planned to allow for sufficient recovery during the workday.  
  • If your employees work in a cold environment, you must give them the opportunity to take breaks in a warm space and provide them with suitable work clothing.

5. Train and support employees to identify harmful workload factors and to anticipate and prevent symptoms caused by them.