Musculoskeletal disorders in the cleaning industry

Musculoskeletal disorders (muscular aches, pains and discomfort) are the most common work-related ill health/ injury reported by cleaners.

Managing the risks effectively can significantly reduce the risk of work-related MSDs to those employed within this industry.

What are musculoskeletal disorders?

The term musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) describes a variety of strain, sprain, and overuse problems affecting the body’s muscles, joints and nerves. The back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs are particularly at risk. Problems include everything from backache and slipped discs, to upper limb disorders, tenosynovitis, pain, numbness, swelling and tingling in the hands and wrists. These conditions are often caused or made worse by work activities.

Why are cleaners at risk?

Cleaning work is demanding and labour intensive. Many tasks involve using cleaning machines and heavy manual work, including mopping, wiping surfaces, polishing, moving rubbish bags, furniture and equipment, putting strain on the heart, muscles and other tissues. Cleaners are often required to work in awkward postures for long periods which may lead to long-term damage.

Cleaners work in buildings which are generally planned for other workers and not designed with cleaning in mind where issues such as access, the location of taps and storage facilities, and the use of unsuitable floor materials can also pose problems.

What the law says

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSW Act) requires employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees and to ensure that those affected by their activities are not exposed to risk. Health and safety law also applies to self-employed persons who create a risk for others.

Other legislation including The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 builds upon the HSW Act and includes duties on employers to assess and control risks.

Recognising a problem

Symptoms may occur suddenly, or there may be a more gradual onset often with initial tingling, then slight swelling or soreness, which may persist and gradually worsen.

Indicators of musculoskeletal problems in the workplace include:

  • increased sickness absence, accident and injury reports
  • reports of pain and discomfort from cleaners or reports on their behalf  from safety/union representatives
  • cleaners wearing splints, bandages or back supports
  • low motivation and dissatisfaction among cleaners – not wanting to do certain tasks
  • cleaners adapting their own equipment

Managing the risks – who should do what

Who actually does what will vary with the size of the organisation and whether or not cleaners are in-house or contracted. However the key tasks and responsibilities in various roles are as follows:


Manual handling

Awkward postures

Work organisation

Using vibrating equipment


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