The way we work and live our lives has changed enormously over the last 25 years. In industry, repetitive, high impact and precision tasks are now increasingly conducted by machines and in business, typists and data-entry clerks are largely a thing of the past.
However we have not seen any corresponding decline in musculoskeletal (MSD) conditions. In fact, these are on the increase, accounting for 41% of reported work related ill health and 34% of lost working days, and consequently it is one of the three main areas for HSE’s new health and work strategy.
The truth is that while the nature of tasks and issues have changed, there has been no reduction in the stresses and strains that we place on our bodies. In fact, the pace of modern life, the rise of technology and the increase in consumerism are introducing new musculoskeletal risks all the time.
For many people, shopping is now something most frequently done from the comfort of the sofa, but internet shopping has led to a significant increase in home deliveries.
Everything from small parcels to whole grocery shops can now be delivered direct to our homes, sometimes within just a few hours. But the cost of this convenience is borne by an army of people in warehouses, distribution centres and fleets of small vans, working 24/7 to meet our expectations.
While it’s possible to manage risk in the packing and distribution centres, out on the road the delivery driver often has to manage alone, manually handling our purchases and negotiating steps, stairs, slopes and other hazards many times every day, against the clock and without any support.
The workplace is no longer a defined location for many people, with a designated desk bearing a traditional computer workstation and monitor. Technological advances mean that an ever increasing number of people can work from anywhere with an internet connection.
Laptops, tablets and the ubiquitous smartphone allow us to stay connected wherever we are. Even those who do go into the office now rarely have a desk of their own. Space is at a premium and hotdesking is increasingly common.
So, without the structure of a defined workplace, desk, workstation, or task, it’s increasingly difficult for employers to maintain the traditional approach to risk assessment and management of potential MSD issues, as they have no control of the environment. The answer has to be to increase the knowledge, awareness and empowerment of workers so that they can identify, evaluate and control these risks themselves.
There is of course another issue at play here too. With the rise of the so-called ‘gig economy’, a growing number of workers fall outside of traditional employment relationships. From taxi drivers and parcel delivery operatives, through to designers, technology and entertainment specialists, agricultural workers, carers, and domestic services providers, more people are now effectively self-employed.
Without the protections afforded by a traditional employment or contracting arrangements, these people take on responsibility for assessing and managing risks to their own health and safety, and are also left to manage alone if something goes wrong and they suffer an injury or develop an illness which leaves them unable to work.
This is of significant concern, and is the subject of a government review by Matthew Taylor, published at the time of going to press. However, it seems likely that this situation will persist while economic progress demands ever-increasing pace and flexibility in the modern workforce.
So, if we are to see a reduction in MSDs in the long term, maybe we need to be building knowledge, understanding and competence from a much earlier age. Maybe the school curriculum should include instruction about the principles of risk assessment and management, ergonomics, human kinetics and the importance of both regular gentle exercise, rest and recovery, in building strength and resilience. Surely the purpose of education must be to equip young people with the knowledge and skills that they need to thrive in the modern world.
The UK has seen a significant and steady improvement in health and safety over the last 40 years, but this will not persist if we fail to adapt our approach in accordance with the changing nature of work. So, on MSDs it’s time for a change. We need to empower people to speak up and get involved if we are to effectively manage these risks going forward to be able to go home safe every day.
Louise Ward is director of policy, communications and standards at the British Safety Council.
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