Musculoskeletal health and physical labour: Why do 50% of manual workers develop pain?

Musculoskeletal health and physical labour: Why do 50% of manual workers develop pain?

Over 2.7 billion workers globally have predominantly deskless jobs involving physical tasks, whether that’s moving parts on an assembly line, lifting materials on a site or helping a patient out of bed. Approximately half of these workers – around 1.35 billion employees – develop musculoskeletal (MSK) pain due to specific risks associated with the physical nature of their work.

In this blog, we touch on some of the most common MSK risks that affect manual workers in different industries. We’ll be going much deeper on specific industries in our upcoming publications!

Manual workers in industries such as healthcare, hospitality, construction and manufacturing make up 80% of the workforce. Specific manual tasks like heavy lifting and carrying pose a greater risk of pain due to excess strain on the musculoskeletal system. Similarly, repetitive tasks like pushing carts or using hand tools place continuous strain on specific muscle groups and often lead to overuse injuries.

Did you know? Posture has a big impact on the development of pain amongst manual workers and leaning forward puts 50% more pressure on your spine than standing straight, which can strain your back and neck muscles. Squatting or crouching for long periods exerts stress on your knees up to 8 times your body weight, with potential long-term consequences on your joint health.

Musculoskeletal health trends in manual workers across sectors

Rates of pain in manual workers vary significantly across different roles and industries. Every manual worker has different musculoskeletal health risks based on the physical demands of their job, what equipment they may be using, their behaviour around taking breaks, whether they adopt the correct posture for the task, and a myriad of other factors. 

However, research shows some consistent trends across the typical manual roles in different industries. Here’s a snapshot of the impact of MSK pain across five key sectors:

1. Healthcare

Healthcare professionals including nurses, surgeons and dentists experience some of the highest rates of pain across all professions. The European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) reveals that 47% of healthcare workers experience back pain, largely due to the physical demands of patient handling. Neck and shoulder pain is also prevalent, affecting between 40-50% of healthcare professionals each year.

MSK pain has a huge impact on job satisfaction and quality of life for healthcare workers. Up to 11% of nurses change jobs due to neck, back or shoulder pain and many more take long term sick leave. Studies show that the use of mechanical lift aids could prevent up to 40% of injuries related to patient handling, which account for a third of all MSK injuries in healthcare workers. 

2. Manufacturing

In manufacturing, especially in sectors like automotive production, workers are frequently exposed to conditions that can lead to physical pain. Lower back pain accounts for 66.5% of MSK issues in factory workers, often exacerbated by repetitive tasks and inadequate ergonomic practices.

Manufacturing roles usually require heavy lifting or working with your arms raised for periods of time. 58% of factory workers develop muscle strain from these activities, leading to neck, shoulder and arm injuries. Clinical research highlights the importance of ergonomic workstation design, regular breaks and optimal task execution to minimise these risks.

3. Construction

33.8% of construction workers report MSK issues, particularly lower back pain from overexertion and repetitive tasks. In the US, the construction industry faces over $400 million annually in workers compensation costs due to musculoskeletal disorders. Physicians report over 70 million cases of injury in construction workers annually. 

Heavy lifting and handling is a significant risk of pain and injury for construction workers. Using mechanical aids for lifting, monitoring correct lifting techniques and scheduling tasks to allow for recovery time between lifting can reduce the occurrence of injuries.

4. Retail

Working in retail may not be as physically demanding as construction or manufacturing, but employees in this sector are also at risk of MSK pain due to the unique demands of the job. Studies show that 21.1% of cashiers and other retail workers experience upper limb problems due to repetitive tasks like scanning items and stocking shelves. Retail workers experience high rates of back pain, often as a result of standing for extended periods of time. 

An interesting aspect of MSK health in the retail industry is the impact on temporary or seasonal workers. These workers are required to lift large volumes of goods, but may lack experience in how to adopt correct lifting techniques and postures to avoid pain. Research shows females tend to report more work-related MSK pain than males in the retail industry.

5. Education

Teachers carry a significant weight on their shoulders in educating the next generation. Tasks such as marking, standing for long periods and writing on whiteboards also put a lot of physical strain on their shoulders, backs and necks, increasing their risk of MSK problems. Bending your head forward can add an extra 5kg of force on your neck muscles per inch of bending, often leading to pain and headaches. 

Global rates of pain are extremely high in the education sector globally, with up to 95% of teaching staff reporting ongoing pain. A study amongst 893 teachers revealed a 48.7% prevalence of neck or shoulder pain and a 45.6% prevalence of lower back pain. It’s important for schools and universities to provide teachers with the necessary breaks and ergonomic support to protect their MSK health.

How the VIDA Physical Labour Assessment can help

VIDA’s clinically-validated Physical Labour Assessment is a digital solution to reduce MSK pain in manual workers. The assessment is based on the Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA) methodology, an industry standard used to evaluate the risk of MSK injuries associated with specific physical tasks in a job.

The assessment educates employees how specific postures and activities increase the risk of MSK pain, such as the risks associated with bending, twisting, working with your arms raised, or kneeling. By providing real-time feedback and actionable insights, our platform encourages workers to become aware of their posture, body mechanics and how to proactively reduce their risk of developing pain.

VIDA Physical labour assessment

At Vitrue Health, we’re on a mission to reduce musculoskeletal pain for millions of people. For more information on how VIDA can reduce pain for manual workers, get in touch with us at or book a demo today!

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Content Marketing Manager

Marisa has over 7 years of experience writing about a range of clinical topics including DSE, hybrid working and employee wellbeing. Check out more of Marisa's articles on the Vitrue Health blog!

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