Back Pain and Repetitive Strain Injury

Last reviewed on 31/10/2016 16:21

This page gives advice on workplace practices that can help prevent back pain and Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

You will also find details of legal duties and responsibilities, and links to further information.

Quick links:

What is 'Repetitive Strain Injury'?

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a term used by many people to refer to a range of disorders of the neck, shoulder, arm, wrist and hand, that can be caused, or made worse by work.

The Health and Safety Executive prefers the more precise term ‘upper limb disorder’, because RSI is not well defined and can be misleading.

RSI can be caused by people using excessive force (pushing, pulling or supporting), making repetitive movements, adopting an awkward or static posture, and by spending excessive time on an activity.

Environmental, psychosocial and individual factors can also play a part, including work design, organisation, management and the social environment.

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What is back pain?

Back pain covers a range of conditions that affect muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves or other soft tissues or joints.

Most back pain does not have an identifiable cause and most cases are not due to anything serious and settle in a few days. If the problem persists, expert medical advice should be sought from a GP or other health professional.

Current research shows that rest does not help recovery and it is better to keep as normally active as possible. As with other complaints, the longer an employee remains off with back pain the less likely they are to go back to work.

For more information on back pain at work and advice for managing back pain at work visit: Scottish Backs (external site).

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Why consider the risks of back pain and RSI?

Injuries and accidents can occur wherever people are at work – where manual handling occurs, where there is work of a repetitive nature, or where people are seated at display screen equipment.

According the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), it is estimated that 12.3 million working days were lost in 2001/2002 due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD):

  • on average, each sufferer took 19.4 days off
  • it is estimated that in 2001/2002, 4.1 million working days were lost due to RSI
  • an HSE study in 1995/1996 estimated RSI was costing employers over £200m
  • it is estimated that in 2001/2002, 396,000 people in Great Britain believed they were suffering from RSI.

Costs to companies can arise from production loss, sickness payments, accident injury claims, higher insurance premiums, high staff turnover and retraining costs.

The cost to the individual is pain, possible permanent disability, time off work and loss of earnings.

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Legal duties and obligations around back pain and RSI

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 These Regulations require employers to ensure that any regular Display Screen Equipment user has a suitable and sufficient assessment of their work station carried out, and that daily work routines are planned, encompassing adequate breaks or changes of activity to reduce their workload at that equipment.

→ Read more information on Display Screen Equipment.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 These regulations require employers to establish a clear hierarchy of measures to be taken by both the employer and employees.

The employer should:

  • avoid the need for hazardous manual handling as far as is reasonably practicable by considering alternative ways of working, e.g. automation or mechanisation
  • assess the risks of injury from hazardous manual handling that cannot be avoided. This can be done in-house to find out ways of making the work easier, less risky and less physically demanding
  • reduce the risk of injury to the lowest level reasonably practicable. This means to reduce risks until the cost of further precautions in time, money or trouble would be too great in proportion to the benefits.

The employee should:

  • follow appropriate systems of work laid down for their safety
  • make proper use of equipment provided for their safety
  • co-operate with their employer on health and safety matters
  • inform the employer if they identify hazardous manual handling activities
  • take care to ensure their activities do not put others at risk.

→ Read more on Manual Handling

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Assessing risks of back pain and RSI

In conducting a Risk Assessment for back pain and RSI, employers should look at:

  • the task
  • the individual
  • the load
  • the working environment.

Risk Assessments should be reviewed regularly.

Employers should also check the accident book and sickness absence records regularly for indications or reports of manual handling or Repetitive Strain Injuries.

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Controlling risks of back pain and RSI

Training should be provided in how to recognise hazardous manual handling, use of mechanical aids, systems of work and the development of good handling techniques.

Ergonomics is a science concerned with the 'fit' between people and their work, and is typically known for solving physical problems at work.

There are many ways in which an ergonomic problem can be identified for manual handling, repetitive tasks and display screen use. It is possible to eliminate aches and pains at work by using ergonomic solutions.

For further information on ergonomics, please see the websites listed below under further information.

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Further information on back pain and RSI

Free resources from Healthy Working Lives Links below are to publications pages giving options to download these resources:

Websites Please note – all links are to external sites:

BackCare – The Charity for Healthier Backs (external site) BackCare provide free factsheets and a telephone helpline. The Charity helps to prevent and manage back pain.

Back pain in the Workplace (external site) This mini-site from the Health and Safety Executive gives excellent information on how to avoid back pain, associated issues like returning to work links to HSE's Better Backs campaign.

Open Ergonomics (external site) This site includes clear, step-by-step guides for ergonomic work station setup and avoiding back pain.

The Ergonomics Society (external site) UK-based international organisation that promotes ergonomics.

Back problems - NHS Inform (external site)Information on back pain and how to avoid it.

Free guidance from the Health and Safety Executive Note – all links are to external pages on the HSE website giving options to download or order these resources:

Other sources of information:

Working Backs Scotland Pack Available free from local Regional Health Boards.

Back Pain at Work: A guide for people at work and their employees. Free copies can be obtained from the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (external site).

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Supporting employees on long term sickness absence

Fit for Work Scotland is a free, confidential advice and support service to help manage long term sickness absence. Employers worried about their employees and GPs concerned about their patients can, with consent, refer them to the service (online referral is quick and easy). Provided by NHS Scotland the service offers expert support, assessment and back-to-work advice.

Visit Fit for Work Scotland or call the Adviceline to discuss your options 0800 019 2211.

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