By Jon Abbott
Published in the August 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
If you asked a room full of newspaper journalists “what is the opposite of fun and adventure?” I bet most of them would say “health and safety.” This can be quite depressing for the health and safety professional whose main objective is to prevent workplace injuries and allow employees to continue to enjoy fun and adventure for many years to come. Sadly there are cases where poor health and safety at work has led to people being denied simple pleasures for the rest of their lives.
The unfortunate consequence of the stories written by those non-safety minded journalists is that they undermine some of the impressive benefits a well managed health and safety program can bring. Companies with solid programs tend to have a highly motivated workforce, and they are more likely to be healthier. Health, motivation, and positivity contribute enormously to fun and adventure. Every good executive will also tell you they contribute enormously to profit. A comfortable employee will be much more productive than one who is in pain or fatigued. They will make fewer mistakes and take less sick leave.
Ergonomics programs can not only help to avoid costly injuries and court cases, but they can also help increase productivity and add real shareholder value. The same arguments can be made for good occupational road risk, manual handling, and environmental programs too. In today’s financial climate safe, healthy, comfortable employees could be the difference between a positive balance sheet and a negative one.
The Real Opposite Of Fun And Adventure
Injury, discomfort, and ill health are the true enemies of freedom and enjoyment. This kind of suffering does exist in the workplace. It’s the goal of health and safety professionals to minimize or remove these risks.
There are, unfortunately, many risks associated with computer use including work related upper limb disorders (WRULDs) and musculoskeletal injuries. WRULDs are soft tissue injuries that affect the muscles, tendons, and nerves of the hands, arms, shoulders, and neck. Musculoskeletal injuries are disorders of the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and other soft tissues of the body. The disorders may develop over time as the result of cumulative repetitive stress or awkward movements that wear down the musculoskeletal system.
These conditions are not new. Throughout history, a variety of conditions has been associated with occupations that require long bouts of repetitive movements. Some are well known—tennis elbow and writer’s cramp, for example—but what about housemaid’s knee, trigger finger, and dog handler’s elbow? These conditions still affect today’s workplaces.
The same technology that helps employees work more efficiently, intelligently, and quickly is to blame. With old fashioned typewriters, regular micro-breaks required by carriage returns were imposed every few seconds. This relieved the strain of repetition just enough. This break in the action has disappeared, thanks to computers.
Telephones gave workers the ability to communicate without walking to colleagues in the next room or across the floor; e-mail has exacerbated this. Nowadays, instant messaging means co-workers don’t even have to speak to their colleagues at the desk right next to them. The result is an increase in discomfort and a greater risk of ergonomic injuries.
A study by Walter Stewart, PhD, MPH director of the center for health research and rural advocacy at Geiser Health Systems, measured the impact of impaired work performance. He asked 28,902 working adults how often they did any of the following due to a painful condition in the past two weeks:
- Lost concentration;
- Repeated a job;
- Worked more slowly than usual;
- Felt fatigued at work; or
- Did nothing at work on days when they were at work not feeling well.
Workers who experienced headaches had an average loss of productive time of 3.5 hours per week; back pain caused a loss of 5.2 hours per week; and lost productive time from other common conditions was reported at a rate of 5.5 hours per week. The majority of this lost time was not work absence but reduced performance.
Research shows that a typical office may have as many as 14.5% of its employees suffering from a pain related symptom “frequently” or “all of the time.” Assuming 100 employees on a salary of $48,000 with overhead costs of $24,000 per year, this could equate to lost time productivity costs of $142,000 per year—a figure that can make or break a business.
Then there’s the potential cost of non-compliance. If fms fail to discharge their duty of care, enforcement action can be taken. This can include the issue of improvement or prohibition notices or prosecution. Legal action can lead to substantial fines or even imprisonment.
Mitchell vs. Atco. The plaintiff, who was a motor tester with the defendant, claimed compensation when diagnosed as suffering from a WRULD. Her task involved a significant level of lifting, turning, and twisting. Although she had also been examined by the employer’s medical adviser, the court also ruled that:
- The evidence of the plaintiff’s doctors should take precedence over that of the company’s medical adviser.
- The defendant had been aware that the tasks carried foreseeable risk of injury.
- No information or advice had been given to the plaintiff relating to the risks and consequences of her activities.
- The court awarded compensation based on loss of earning, loss of future earnings, and for pain and suffering.
McSherry and others v. British Telecom. Damages were awarded to two BT employees who alleged they had been injured as a result of working at high speeds on keyboards while provided with inappropriate furniture. BT appealed against the judgment, but the appeal was abandoned when the case was settled out of court. As the appeal was lodged but then abandoned, this case does not rank as a legal precedent but is of interest as it is the first case of its kind where a case related to furniture.
In the U.K., the challenge with complying with the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) regulations is the amount of time, effort, and resource needed to comply. Today’s workforce is ever changing; workers are more mobile than at any time in history, and equipment continues to be updated. Each change requires action under the UK’s DSE regulations.
These regulations are designed to mitigate this risk universally. Education is important in ensuring employees understand the risks and can take measures to prevent discomfort. A risk assessment program helps employers to identify any residual risk. Effective DSE management can be achieved with simple programs that provide a modular, adaptable solution.
So forget about poor image of health and safety painted by the tabloids. There are indeed significant benefits for fms who develop well thought out programs. Those who keep it simple and effective should be able to measure the results.
Under these conditions, the workforce will be better placed to enjoy fun and adventure, and companies will be rewarded with greater productivity and profit….just don’t expect to read about it in the Daily Bugle.
Abbott is managing director, ergonomics and safety, at Cardinus Risk Management Limited. He has over 15 years’ experience in ergonomics, safety, and occupational health and was instrumental in setting up Cardinus operations in America and Holland. He is currently responsible for the sales and marketing strategy for Cardinus Risk Management Limited.