The Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment Labour Market Statistics Bulletin published in 2005, reported that 32 000 persons suffered from an illness which was caused or made worse by work in the year prior to winter 2004/2005 and the most common type of work-related illness reported was back problems, i.e. 10 000 people or 30% of those with a work-related illness. The cost of work-related ill health to society, employers and the individuals themselves is estimated to be £330 million per year (2002) and a significant proportion of this can be attributed to back pain.
The Northern Ireland Health and Social Wellbeing Survey 2001 reported that 39 % of men and 42 % of women had consulted a doctor regarding back pain. Workers in almost every sort of job are at risk and the statistics suggest that a high proportion of workplaces are likely to have someone who has back pain or has had back pain in the past, whether work related or not.
Back pain affects all industries not just a few high risk sectors. However, there are certain tasks and factors that increase the risk, such as:
- heavy physical work
- lifting and handling
- pushing and pulling
- awkward postures
- repetitive lifting
- uncomfortable working position
- exerting too much force
- working too long without breaks
- adverse working environment (e.g. hot, cold)
- a work rate imposed by a process/machine
- not receiving and acting upon reports of symptoms quickly enough
In June almost 100 inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) and the Environmental Health Departments of the 26 District Councils will team up to carry out Northern Ireland’s largest ever jointly conducted health and safety inspection initiative, Backs NI. The initiative aims to increase awareness of back related disorders and to spread good practice messages. It will involve HSENI and council inspectors calling with businesses across Northern Ireland in June to check compliance with the law and to provide advice and support to those businesses struggling to get to grips with manual handling.
The Manual Handling Operations Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1992 (as amended) require employers to, so far as is reasonably practicable, avoid the need for their employees to undertake any manual handling operations at work which involve a risk of their being injured. Where this is not reasonably practicable employers are required to make a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and to take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of injury to those employees arising out of their undertaking such manual handling operations to the lowest level reasonably practicable.
Inspectors calling at your workplace will:
- discuss routine and non-routine lifting, carrying, team handling, pushing and pulling manual handling operations
- ask about what action has already been taken to prevent back injury, e.g. risk assessment, use of handling aids, workplace adaptation, training and ongoing plans to reduce the risk further
- select one or more tasks for in-depth assessment and
- record an action you agree to take as a result of the intervention
So what can you do to prepare? Begin by considering all the activities in your workplace that involve people moving loads and assess whether such manual handling is really necessary. Take account of the risk factors above and look for solutions where you can avoid manual handling altogether. If this is not possible can you, for example, mechanise/automate processes or provide handling aids such as trolleys, lift trucks, hoists, chutes, conveyors and level adjusting equipment. Can you reduce the weight of the load? If you are handling people, individual mobility needs should be assessed and reviewed as part of each individual’s personal care plan, taking account of the person’s current capabilities and mobility assistance needs and their rights to autonomy, privacy and dignity.
Before considering precautionary measures to control the risk from those activities that cannot be avoided consult your workforce as they often have first hand knowledge of the risks associated with a specific task or tasks. Once you have introduced precautionary measures, including training people in their use, you should monitor their effectiveness and ensure that new risks have not been introduced.
It is important that everyone gets involved in the Backs NI initiative, as it is recognised that those in control of workplaces can undoubtedly make a huge difference to the health of their workers. They have the potential to support and promote good health in the workplace and there is no doubt that a good working environment will make people feel better and increase their sense of wellbeing – good for business and the economy.
A free Backs NI information pack has been produced and it can be ordered by phoning HSENI’s One-2-One Helpline 0800 0320 121 or by contacting Newtownabbey Borough Council Environmental Health Department.on90340160 Information can also be downloaded from www.workingforhealthni.gov.uk. Free advice on managing back pain at work and rehabilitation is available from HSENI’s Employment Medical Advisory Service, by phoning 02890 408004.