From pandemic to prevention: companies address manual handling risks
For the last three years, there has been a focus on reducing the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace and minimising the risk of infection — and rightly so.
From 2019 to 2020, there was a staggering 39-fold increase in respiratory cases in the US; increasing from 10,800 cases in 2019 to 428,700 cases in 2020. In 2021, respiratory cases fell 37.1% to 269,600 and forecasts indicate that this number will continue to fall as infection rates drop towards pre-COVID numbers.
In its latest report, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed that there are currently 1850 workplace safety officers employed in the US as of July 2022. This is approximately 2.5x the numbers seen midway through 2019 and this change can be directly attributed to the changes in the workplace necessitated by COVID-19, eg, mask fit-testing, cleaning controls, rearranging workspaces to account for social distancing guidelines.
The downward trend in COVID-19 cases, combined with the recent increase in safety officers in the workforce, represents an opportunity to make positive change in how businesses can effectively manage workplace manual handling injuries going forward.
Work-related injury and disease
Across all work industries, manual handling injuries (or body stressing injuries) represent ~37% of total workplace injuries. The shoulder and lower back are the most common offenders, making up 60–70% of total reported manual handling injuries.
With business starting to return to a more normal cadence of work, it is an ideal opportunity to have a fresh look at manual handling injuries.
- What is causing them?
- What data is available to understand and profile the movements and loads contributing to the injury onset?
- What tools do safety professionals have to mitigate these injuries in the work force?
Steps to reduce manual handling injuries
There are five steps to assist in reducing manual handling injuries by 30–40% across a 12-month period.
1. Understand where to focus energy
The use of historical data, job knowledge and workers’ feedback can offer crucial insights on achieving maximum impact at the lowest cost. Historical data, in particular, can provide valuable information on injury trends by analysing injury cases over time — allowing identification of injury patterns among new and aging workers or those due to end-of-day or shift work fatigue.
Changes in productivity measures over a specified period can also be compared to injury rates, thus providing further insights. Additionally, job knowledge is vital in understanding specific task-related risks and may be acquired from a job dictionary or task activity assessment.
Employee feedback and engagement can provide solutions to workplace risks, often from an experienced worker who has performed the task for a long time or from a fresh perspective of a new worker. Interaction with all workers can provide invaluable clues to solve these manual handling issues and risks.
What is measured, can be managed. Without quantifying employees’ work activities, organisations will often have to guess what changes need to be made. For decades, safety experts have performed workplace assessments using a clipboard, a tape measure, a camera and sometimes a force gauge.
However, the use of traditional measurement tools leaves several critical, unanswered questions.
- How often does the worker perform that task?
- How do different workers complete the same task?
- Is the worker changing the way they would usually complete the task because there is someone recording their work activity?
The answers to these questions are essential for making informed decisions and improving workplace safety and efficiency.
Digitised tools are now available and have become far more user-friendly in the last decade. Options include movement sensors, digital force gauges and muscle activity sensors (EMG) which provide insights on load and muscular exertion. More often than not, risks for injury will come from the combination of a number of factors, and occur over an undetermined time period.
3. Make decisions based on data, not opinions
At the higher level of business, board members seek data that they can rely on — financial figures, injury data, productivity statistics and macroeconomic factors. Businesses will push for timely and accurate information to inform their decision-making. They now have the same opportunity when it comes to manual handling injuries.
Access to data-gathering tools is now more accessible than ever and will help to capture data on workers’ movements and load to inform decisions on what to change, modify, eradicate or fine-tune. This puts organisations in a powerful position. By using the latest technology to inform decision-making, they can both keep workers safe and supply these groundbreaking insights to senior management and executive teams.
4. Test potential solutions using data to inform best practice
Once accurate baseline data has been captured, this acts as the standard or base case against which each proposed intervention can be compared. In this way, organisations can test various potential solutions, iterate them as they choose, and keep comparing the data back to the original base case.
Being able to capture movement, muscle activity, video, heart rate, impact and vibration data over a worker’s full shift, enables an assessment of the worker’s exertion and cumulative movements, and provides insights on productivity. It is essential to understand the impact on productivity to ensure the solution can be embraced by all levels of the organisation.
5. Implement the solution
The implementation of a chosen solution is a critical step, and many projects may fail at this final hurdle. There should be a thorough and well-informed implementation plan scheduled on a realistic timeframe, with measurable touchpoints to ensure the efficacy of the program. This may even require a project manager, an ambassador to engage with workers, and an easily accessible FAQ for workers to use when required. The implementation part of the project will also need to be adequately budgeted, with relevant documentation updated and key staff trained adequately on the solution to be implemented.
dorsaVi manufactures wearable sensors to monitor and prevent workplace MSD injuries. Click here to learn more.
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