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October 20, 2022

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CHAS offers guidance on preventing injuries to muscles, bones & joints

With the HSE set to undertake a thousand inspections during October and November in an effort to drive down the rates of muscular skeletal disorders (MSD’s) in the construction industry, Alex Minett, head of products & markets at CHAS, looks at the steps workers and employers can take to prevent these injuries on site.

Construction work is a physical job, meaning lifting and moving heavy objects on site is to be expected. Nevertheless, the law requires employers to prevent the ill health of their workers, which includes injuries to muscles, bones, joints and nerves. The good news is that when work is properly planned and the correct training, aids and equipment are in place to prevent injuries, many moving and handling risks can be effectively mitigated.

How can back problems occur?
Generally, back issues will develop over time and become a chronic or episodic problem causing mild to severe pain. Sometimes they will occur after a work-related accident. According to the HSE, tasks that can cause back pain or make existing issues worse include:

  • Lifting heavy or bulky loads
  • Carrying loads awkwardly, possibly one-handed
  • Pushing, pulling or dragging heavy loads
  • Manual handling in awkward places, such as during delivery work
  • Repetitive tasks, such as packing products
  • Bending, crouching or stooping
  • Stretching, twisting and reaching
  • Being in one position for a long time
  • Working beyond your capability or when physically overtired
  • Working with display screen equipment (with poor posture)
  • Driving long distances or over rough ground, especially if the seat is not, or cannot be, properly adjusted or operating heavy equipment (for example, excavators)

While rarely life-threatening, back problems can cause life-limiting conditions and chronic pain for sufferers.

Legal obligations and managing the risk
Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 employers have a duty to protect workers from harm by providing adequate training in health and safety as well as information, instruction and supervision. They must also maintain a secure working environment where tasks can be undertaken safely.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 relate specifically to work that involves ‘the moving of items either by lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing or pulling’, any of which could present a potential risk of injury. It’s easier to prevent back injuries than cure them, and the steps an employer must take under the regulations begin with looking at whether the need for manual handling can be avoided altogether. Where this is not possible employers then have a duty to make a suitable assessment of the risk of injury from any manual handling operations that cannot be avoided while looking to reduce the risk of harm to as low as is reasonably practical, such as by using machinery or other equipment to carry out the task. Risk assessments and safety procedures should be reviewed regularly. Lastly, the regulations state that where possible, employees who are undertaking manual handling should be provided with precise information on the weight of each load and the heaviest side of any load whose centre of gravity is not positioned centrally.

Training is a crucial aspect of managing any health and safety risk. For example, employees should be educated on the dangers of back and spine injuries and how to recognise and avoid the causes. Training should also include techniques on moving and handling heavy loads and equipment either through demonstrations or videos.

Employee input when it comes to managing the risk of back injury is valuable. Often back pain occurs following a previous episode, so employees are best placed to provide information on their back health histories as well as their capabilities and they should always be encouraged to report problems early so the proper treatment can be sought. People are far more likely to recover from back pain when recognised early and treated appropriately. Where an employee may be reluctant to admit to their limitations, look for signs they may be struggling with back pain. Reluctance to do particular tasks could be a red flag that they are harbouring an injury.

Return to work discussions are an essential part of an employees recovery. It may be possible that they can come back before all their symptoms have completely disappeared depending on medical advice and consider whether an adjustment to work practices to accommodate their return will be necessary. It might be prudent to consult an occupational health professional for advice on back pain. Larger companies may have in-house occupational health departments; however there are plenty of external contractors who provide occupational health services.

Back pain and mental health
It is worth noting that sufferers of any chronic pain could go on to develop issues with their mental health, such as depression. Unrelenting back pain can lead to poor sleeping and eating habits, interrupt physical activity and all of the other activities that contribute to positive emotional wellbeing. Stress from suffering with pain can often exacerbate the physical symptoms, and so it becomes a vicious circle. GPs will often suggest psychological therapy in addition to other treatments for back pain.

Injuries to muscles, bones and joints are commonplace, particularly in the construction industry. Although they can improve within weeks, the disruption to businesses and workforces can be significant, even more so when there is a high risk the problems can return. Not to mention the detrimental impact MSD’s have on employees themselves.

With the HSE inspection campaign set to shine a light on these conditions over the next few months, now is a good time to review current health and safety policies and ensure robust management strategies are in place when it comes to preventing these all-too-common workplace injuries.

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