Unsafe Manual Handling remains the biggest workplace OHS problem

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New figures released by the Victorian OHS regulator, WorkSafe Victoria, show that unsafe manual handling persists as the biggest worry for government OHS regulators and that means an ongoing legal problem for workplaces that are not managing the risk of their manual work.

The Victorian regulator claims Victoria is the safest state in which to work, mostly because of the consistent pressure on employers from its inspectors to enforce safety law, but like its fellow state and territory OHS regulators it is yet to crack the manual handling problem.

According to new data issued by WorkSafe Victoria for the 2016 calendar year the number of manual handling related injuries is stuck at around four out of every 10 each year.

The new figures reveal that there were 25,309 claims for 2016 throughout Victorian workplaces of which manual handling related injuries are by far the largest number and proportion. The good news is that total claims fell from 26,715 in 2015. Over the long term, the total number of injury claims in workplaces has been falling although at a lower rate than regulators expect. This is raising concerns that employers should be doing much more to reduce the risk, particularly in the area of unsafe manual tasks.

The new figures indicate that 37 per cent of injuries (9417 of the 23,309 total) during 2016 were “body stressing”, WorkSafe’s term for the manual handling related injuries. This is actually an increase on the 2015 proportion which was 36 per cent. The numbers of different type of claims can vary from year to year due to work demand and economic activity in the state but when the figures of 2011 to 2016 are totalled, the number of “body stressing” claims was 66,255, or 40 per cent of the 165,158 claims over that period.

“Body stressing” refers to stresses and strains of the back, neck, shoulder and limbs and connecting tissues such as muscles and nerves that make up the musculoskeletal system. Musculoskeletal injuries are usually caused by lifting and moving materials that are either heavy or awkward and applying force in a task. A common cause of workplace injury is the lifting and emptying of heavy rubbish bins into large waste skips. Battery powered wheelie bin tippers allow operators the effortlessly and quickly empty bins.

Regulators split their data into two statistical streams that often don’t match up cleanly which is due to the inherent complexity and inaccuracy of the claims coding and reporting system for different workers compensation purposes. These streams are the “mechanism” (the cause of the injury ie “body stressing”) and the “nature of the injury” (“musculoskeletal disorder”). In the latest Victorian figures a “musculoskeletal disorder” was the result of 8288 of the injuries, or 33 per cent of the injuries reported in 2016. Between 2011and 2016 the total of number of musculoskeletal disorders was 59,996, a massive burden on the workers compensation system.

The next biggest cause (mechanism) of injury last year after body stressing were slips and trips and falls (22 per cent), followed by impact with an object (19 per cent) and mental injury eg stress (11 per cent). Looking at the perspective of the “nature/result of” injury, after the 33 per cent of musculoskeletal disorders that cause workers to be off work for treatment, the next biggest conditions are traumatic injuries (19 per cent), wounds/cuts/amputations (13 per cent), mental disorders (12 per cent) and fractures (11 per cent).

The general view in the OHS community is that hazardous manual handling cause closer to half of all injuries and probably more and that hasn’t changed for as long as the current OHS system has been in place across Australia. This is mostly because manual handling is such a common and diverse task that many incidents such as “slips, trips and falls” could result from hazardous manual handling but the data does not show that. This may understate the problem and the importance of reducing the risk by adopting efficient and effective materials handling equipment that is now readily available.

There is a large range of material handling equipment available to assist in safe manual handling. Warehouse trolleys are widely used in transporting product in warehouses and storerooms. The Clax cart is popular for use in offices and handling of stationary and records.

The WorkSafe figures also show in what industries and in what regions of Victoria injuries happen but doesn’t break down industry sector claims into their cause. The industries with the most number of claims of all types during the 2016 calendar year were manufacturing (16 per cent), health and community services (15 per cent), construction (13 per cent) and wholesale and retail trade (12 per cent). All of these industries involve a significant amount of manual work so it safe to assume they continue to be the source of most of the manual handling related claims. Employers in those industries have the most to gain from reducing the risk of hazardous manual handling tasks.

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