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May 27, 2008

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Musculoskeletal disorders among Royal Mail employees

The Communication Workers’ Union’s ‘Lighten the load’ campaign aims to tackle musculoskeletal disorders among Royal Mail employees. The union’s Dave Joyce outlines its progress to date.

It might be surprising to learn that Royal Mail’s safety record is significantly worse than that of the transport industry. The current total number of RIDDOR-reportable accidents at Royal Mail stands at around 5000 to 5500 a year. In the transport industry, the corresponding total is around 3000 to 3500 a year.

When you consider these totals against number of workers, the figures are even more grim. Currently, there are about 120 RIDDOR-reportable accidents per 1000 Royal Mail employees each year. In the transport sector, however, the rate of reportable non-fatal injury in transport is about 15 per 1000 workers.

The majority of injuries to mail workers occur on delivery jobs, and main causes include slips and trips, dog attacks, road and cycling accidents, as well as poor lifting and handling. Indeed, the organisation employs 0.7 per cent of the UK population and has been responsible for nearly 10 per cent of the country’s musculoskeletal injuries each year.

In an attempt to address the issue of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among postal workers, the Communication Workers Union last year launched its ‘Lighten the load’ campaign. Designed, on the one hand, to improve the prevention of MSDs, the campaign also focuses heavily on retention, rehabilitation and reintegration into the workplace of union members who have suffered from MSDs.

Making progress on this issue, however, has proved an uphill battle, mainly because of a historic culture at Royal Mail, which placed a high priority on productivity.

In 2004-05, Royal Mail moved from two mail deliveries a day to a single delivery. At the same time ‘job and finish’ was introduced for delivery staff. This enabled staff to go home once they had delivered all the mail on their delivery round, so the quicker they got the job done, the earlier they finished work.

The combination of these operational policies led to bad working practices, whereby local managers failed to check if workers, who, in effect, were motivated to rush their rounds, were also carrying excess weight. This led to musculoskeletal and manual-handling injuries, as well as slips, trips and falls.

These delivery methods are being restructured and redesigned under a new pay and modernisation agreement, which should be completed over 2008-09, and will hopefully control, or eliminate these bad working practices.

The HSE steps in

A year prior to the introduction of these programmes, the number of accidents among Royal Mail workers reached a peak of 40,000 a year. Cases of ill health cost the organisation £80 million a year, of which £40 million was attributable to musculoskeletal injuries.

Inevitably, this drew the attention of the HSE, which launched an investigation and, subsequently, a national three-year workplace inspection programme into Royal Mail’s delivery operations. In a further effort to bring about improvements in the organisation’s health and safety management, last year saw Royal Mail, along with the HSE and CWU, sign up to the Large Organisations Partnership Pilot (LOPP) scheme. This initiative has already yielded some good results, but there is still a long way to go.

Controlling weight

It has been agreed by the CWU and Royal Mail that a sensible and pragmatic way to improve the control of excess weight on delivery, and to help overcome the problem of excess weight being carried over the shoulder, would be to alter the pouch (mailbag)-weight matrix — the agreed sliding scale of ‘maximum’ weights that can be carried in each worker’s subsequent pouch of mail.

Trials are due to start soon on new delivery-pouch weight risk-assessment and management arrangements. As a first course of action, these will aim to remove the need to carry weight on the shoulder by deploying other delivery techniques wherever possible, in addition to lowering the delivery-pouch maximum weights.

A delivery postman or woman may carry six, seven, or eight pouches of mail each day, so the proposal is to set a clear maximum limit of 16kg for the first pouch on the walk, and a maximum limit of 11kg for subsequent pouches (note that these are maximum and not target weights).

These can be reduced further if, for example, the walk involves climbing lots of stairs or hills, while workers under the age of 18 will have lower maximum limits. In addition, bicycles can only carry one pouch of a maximum 16kg in the front rack and, if panniers are fitted, they can only carry a maximum of 8kg each side.

Weighing facilities and records will be introduced in all delivery offices to ensure that staff can check the weight of their pouches, and there will be a requirement for managers to sample-check the weight of pouches on an ongoing basis. For every delivery walk, the full profile of pouch weights will be checked periodically.

Measures are also being put in place to take the weight off the delivery person, wherever possible, through the introduction of a range of delivery-aid equipment, such as high-capacity trolleys (HCTs).

Before the introduction of a trolley on a delivery walk, a ‘terrain assessment’ must be carried out to ensure the terrain is suitable for trolley use. HCTs are intended for use on level or undulating surfaces, where small inclines do not cause any additional force to be exerted. In all cases, use of HCTs will depend on local risk assessments undertaken by managers in consultation with safety representatives.

Health and safety guidance has also been disseminated on the use of low-level letter-boxes — another potential factor in causing MSDs. The advice states that workers should not stoop down to ground level while still carrying heavy mailbags. Delivery rounds that include a number of low-level letter-boxes should be risk-assessed, with managers then acting upon the results, if necessary, by giving team briefings, training, etc.

Route design

The safe design and management of mail delivery routes will also play an important role in dealing with the weight workers are expected to carry during their delivery rounds, and thereby help to reduce the incidence of MSDs. This will be accompanied by thorough, walk risk assessments, which should lead to clear, suitable and sufficient action plans to deal with the risks, including any staff training requirements.

Worker involvement

All workers need to play their part in the campaign by keeping walk logs up to date, and ensuring that this information is used in the formulation of health and safety accident prevention measures. The delivery walk should not exceed 3.5 hours, while the initiative also advises workers not to rush or take short-cuts, as both can lead to accidents, fatigue and stress, increasing the potential for musculoskeletal injuries.

Union safety representatives should be fully involved in the local assessment of delivery routes, and in ensuring health and safety compliance. They should also consider monitoring and controls, travel distance, workload, terrain, equipment, cumulative weight, breaks, etc.

The flip side to prevention

While prevention will always be the priority, rehabilitation is the other side of the coin. It’s important that when things go wrong, postal workers receive adequate help and support in order to restore their health and return them to work in a fit state. In this area, too, there has been some notable progress.

Following discussions on rehabilitation support, in 2005 Royal Mail committed to pilot a specialist rehabilitation service to help ill workers resume work following a musculoskeletal illness, or injury. The London Mount Pleasant Rehabilitation Centre was opened as a pilot centre, and the trial results showed a return on investment equating to about £3 for every £1 Royal Mail put in.

Other benefits included returning to work earlier, a decline in ill-health retirement, reduced recurrent sickness absence, and a return to full duties for 80 per cent of the staff who took up the offer of using the centre.

On the back of this pilot, two more rehabilitation centres were opened, in Birmingham and Sheffield, providing specialist rehabilitation for musculoskeletal and stress-related conditions. A national physiotherapy treatment service for treating musculoskeletal conditions has also been introduced, and is available to staff.

The three centres are run on behalf of Royal Mail by RehabWorks, a specialist provider of return-to-work treatment services. The company provides a complete treatment solution for acute, sub-acute, and chronic conditions, including MSDs.

Services include: occupational physiotherapy services, functional restoration programmes, pain management programmes, whiplash recovery programmes, injury management and condition management programmes, orthopaedics, manual therapy, back care, repetitive strain injury, upper-limb disorders, etc.


According to accident statistics from the Royal Mail, nearly 17,000 accidents took place in 2007-08 — 18 per cent of which could be attributed to lifting and handling. The figures are still poor but are now moving in the right direction.

It is worth noting that, as in many of sectors, there is likely to be a considerable level of under-reporting of incidents. Recent changes in personnel at the top of the organisation — notably, a new managing director and a new operations director — have brought a fresh commitment to the issue, with significant resources earmarked for health and safety investment and the reshaping of safety management.


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Mrs Postwoman
Mrs Postwoman
6 years ago

If this was written in 2008, how come bad practice is still happening now? There’s little health and safety where I work! Heavy bags, long routes, low letter boxes etc etc

S Bram
S Bram
4 years ago
Reply to  Mrs Postwoman

Absolutely postwoman, walks are now up to 6 hours long and approximately 10 to 12 miles in walking distance alone. Bring back the 1990’s when I first started.