Employers still “underestimating” Manual Handling Hazards

 

Underestimation” of the risk of hazardous manual handling by employers is the main reason workers are still being injured while moving materials at work.

This is the view of Deloitte Access Economics, the prominent economics think tank that provides practical advice on public policy, business trends and investment strategies.

In a recent report for WorkSafe Victoria, “Regulatory Impact Statement for the Proposed Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 …” Deloitte analysed Victoria’s manual handling claims data over the last 10 years, to assist in the development of the State’s next phase of OH&S laws and regulations.

Deloitte notes that while the number of claims have reduced, this hazard remains the biggest source of worker compensation claims in Victoria, at 41 per of all claims. The cause? “Cases of musculoskeletal injury can occur when the physical impact of a manual handling task is underestimated by employers and appropriate risk control measures are not put in place,” Deloitte says.

A significant factor in underestimating impact, Deloitte says, is “behavioral”. This means greater challenges for employers in “identifying hazardous manual handling in work design” and in “accurately assessing the risk of an injury occurring.”

Another problem the report touches on is that employers “underestimate” the real cost of manual handling injuries. Workers compensation cover off-times insulates employers from the true cost of injury treatment and payments to injured workers during time off work. They are also spared the cost of civil action for damages by workers who are permanently injured.

According to Deloitte, the total number of serious manual handling injuries in Victoria has only fallen around 2000 between July 2007 and June 2015, a shallow improvement for what is the biggest problem for any Australian OH&S regulator. Over that period when the existing Victorian manual handling regulations were in force, there were more than 94,400 injuries and that figure is understated due to under-reporting and claims avoidance. Given that the cost of an average manual handing injury has always been high because of duration and amount of medical treatment, this is a significant hit to the Victorian compensation system. Deloitte states that the current average claim costs $65,354.

The Deloitte report is now assisting WorkSafe Victoria frame its next set of manual handling regulations which are due to be in operation by July 2017. The big question is: how might the regulations be revised to help change workplace “behavior” around manual handling risk management and therefore prevent more injuries?

The report states that it is “difficult to identify with any certainty the decrease (in claims) that can be attributed to the existing OH&S regulations”. The big change in existing 2007 regulations was the removal of the requirement to do a “risk assessment” to assist in determining the most appropriate control measures. The other jurisdictions followed suite when they adopted the similar national model regulations. When Victoria dropped that legal duty, the justification was that “some employers have put undue emphasis on risk assessment and have not progressed to the consideration and implementation of controls”. It was also stated that an assessment was not always required to come up with the right solution and that a control may be arrived at by other means e.g. “through industry knowledge and professional advice”.

There has been a push in Victoria to reinstate this requirement for employers for 2017. After a long period of consulting with workplaces over this and other important matters for its report, Deloitte has advised against it. Its view is that there is no “specified measurable and enforceable exposure standard” that determines risk of injury.

“The focus of the proposed regulations is appropriately on the control of risk – employers should be encouraged to focus on risk control measures rather than the need to assess each employees’ work against what would be an inexact ‘exposure standard’ Manual handling equipment can assist in controlling and mitigating risks. Relatively cost effective equipment such as trolleys and hand trucks can help in the transportation of heavy and bulky items. These are widely used in manufacturing, food service, healthcare and warehouse use. Pallet trucks and pallet jacks are widely used to move heavy palletized goods.

That means employers should never “underestimate” the risk and should continue with investment in the most effective safety and materials handling equipment. This will mean businesses should be better prepared for the implementation of any new regulations which are usually supported by an enforcement campaign. This response will be watched by the other Australian regulators who will be updating their model regulations in coming years.

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