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In 2015, roughly three out of every five workers across the 28 Member States of the EU (EU-28) reported complaints related to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). This illustrates that MSDs remain the most common work-related health problem in the EU. MSDs affect workers in all sectors and occupations and, besides the effects on workers themselves, they lead to high costs to enterprises and society as a whole[1].

It is in this context that the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) decided to set up the ‘OSH overview on MSDs’ activity. The specific objectives of this activity were to:

  • encourage more and better-targeted policy instruments at EU and national levels by providing a better picture of the prevalence and costs of MSDs in Europe;
  • contribute to improving the prevention of MSDs, as well as the management of chronic MSDs, in European workplaces by raising awareness and by identifying and disseminating good practice among national authorities, employers and sector-level organisations in particular;
  • stimulate and support measures at national level among policy-makers and occupational safety and health (OSH) intermediaries designed to improve preventive action in the workplace through the identification and sharing of successful initiatives;
  • promote greater success in the sustainable reintegration of workers with MSDs by identifying successful schemes and workplace measures;
  • identify research priorities and improve understanding of the underlying causes of MSDs through a targeted analysis of research and data.

In this context, a study entitled ‘MSDs facts and figures overview: prevalence, costs and demographics of MSDs in Europe’ was carried out. The aims of this study were to:

  • provide quantitative information on the prevalence and costs of MSDs;
  • improve understanding of the underlying causes of MSDs through a targeted analysis of data;
  • contribute to the earlier identification of emerging trends and risks at work with the aim of enabling more timely and effective interventions

One of the tasks of the project briefly introduced above was to conduct a methodological review of existing publicly available statistical data on MSDs. The objectives of the methodological review were to:

  • contribute to the identification of new MSD-related sources of information (for the OSH sector)a data gaps and needs in terms of data/knowledge to be addressed;
  • provide data to support the preparation of the forthcoming Europe-wide campaign on the prevention of work-related MSDs (Healthy Workplaces Campaign 2020-22).

MSDs methodological report

Based on the objectives just mentioned above, the methodological review set out to answer the following research questions:

  • Are there sufficient and up-to-date comprehensive data on MSDs that are comparable across all Member States (MSDs prevalence on workforce; characteristics of workers and jobs where MSDs are prevalent; employers interventions, etc)? If this is not the case, what are the main shortcomings and how could the situation be overcome?
  • What are the main indicators or questions (or kinds of questions) used for measuring the prevalence and impact of MSDs in general and for more specific disorders such as upper limb, lower limb, etc.? Can a typology be established (throughout surveys/administrative datasets/countries)? If this is the case, what is the added value/are the limitations of these different types of indicators/questions (compared with each other)?
  • What are the missing questions/indicators (if any) that should or could be developed to better measure or make (more) visible MSDs in general or a more specific MSD issue/problem/trend (for instance, lower limb disorders or sitting as a MSD risk)? Would it be possible to recommend the generalisation of one specific indicator/question used in one specific country/survey to other countries/surveys?
  • What can we learn about MSDs from joint analysis of datasets such as the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER), EU Labour Force Survey (LFS) and European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) that it is not possible to learn by analysing the individual datasets in isolation?
  • What can be learned from the data analyses carried out in terms of data gaps, comparability, etc.?

A methodological report was produced based on an analysis of the quality, comparability, coverage and reliability of the existing data on MSDs and the identification of shortcomings or gaps in terms of knowledge and information as experienced during the execution of the project, taking into account the hands-on experience of the other project tasks. The findings from this analysis are too detailed and technical to be included in the general report mentioned above, but can be of use to specific experts to further improve data on MSDs and to repeat and improve the current study in due course; hence, they have been described in this separate report.

Approach of the review and structure of the report

The review is based on the experience of processing and analysing the data during the other activities undertaken in the different stages of this project. During each step in the project, team members wrote down relevant issues and findings concerning the methodology. The collected input has been further structured and analysed in accordance with the logical set-up of the different project stages.

The identification of relevant data sources started with a multidimensional model on causes, indicators and consequences of MSDs. Chapter 2 of this methodological report therefore presents the multidimensional model of MSDs that served as a framework for the overview report. During the finalisation of the overview report, several suggestions emerged on how this framework could be improved. These suggestions are included in this chapter.

Chapters 3 and 4 of this methodological report focus on the different datasets that have been analysed for this study, with Chapter 3 describing survey data and Chapter 4 describing administrative data. Each of these chapters discusses European data sources that have been used to prepare tables and graphs for the overview report, as well as other European data sources that have not been used because they turned out to be less relevant. For each of the data sources used for the overview report, the following aspects are discussed:

  • main characteristics;
  • quality (in terms of size, representativeness, reliability and comparability);
  • findings from the descriptive and exploratory analyses carried out for the overview report (lessons learned).

For the data sources that have not been used for the overview report, the reason for not using them is explained.

The overview report is based not only on information from Europe-wide surveys, but also on country-specific information collected for 10 Member States. One of the objectives of these country reports was to provide available national data regarding MSDs that may enrich/complement the identified Europe-wide surveys. Chapters 3 and 4 end with an overview of the national surveys and administrative data sources that have been identified for these 10 countries.

In Chapter 5, the available data (as presented in Chapters 3 and 4) are compared with the multidimensional model (as presented in Chapter 2) to identify any shortcomings or gaps in terms of knowledge and information regarding MSDs. In sections 5.1-5.7, the availability of relevant indicators is discussed for each building block of the model. Section 5.8 discusses the possibility of analysing relations between different building blocks of the model (based on the available data). The possibility of joint analysis of different data sources is discussed in section 5.9, and section 5.10 focuses on the availability of data on new and emerging MSD-related risks.

The main findings are summarised in Chapter 6. This chapter is structured in accordance with the research questions.


[1] EU-OSHA (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work), ''Work-related musculoskeletal disorders: Prevalence, costs and demographics in the EU'', 2019. Available at:

Further reading

EU-OSHA, Work-related musculoskeletal disorders – facts and figures. Methodological report, 2020.

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