One of the warnings coming from Victoria’s health and safety month in October was that WorkSafe Victoria inspectors are turning up the heat on manual handling risk. And when the Victorian regulator acts on a specific issue other major state regulators are usually doing the same or not far behind Victoria.
During last financial year (2015-16) WorkSafe inspectors issued 38 per cent more manual handling-related legal notices requiring employers to fix hazards or face legal action. There will be many more of these notices this financial year. No workplace can afford to take such action lightly because such focussed campaigns tend to be looking for “showcase” prosecutions to send a message to employers that the bar has now been raised.
Stepping up action during this financial year is justified by the statistics WorkSafe Victoria released last month. They showed 40 per cent of Victoria’s injury claims are caused by “body stress” injuries related to manual handling risk – that’s more than 10,515 claims. When slips, trips and falls are added to the total, because they cause similar injuries, the proportion of all Victorian injuries of that type persists at around 50 per cent.
Over the remainder of the 2016-2017 financial year, WorkSafe inspectors are delivering on their priorities for workplace visits – manual handling is the top priority along with unsafe plant. The other focus is poor housekeeping that causes many of the slips, trips and low level falls that often cause body stressing.
Regulators do specific hazard blitzes from time the time to catch out employers who continue to put their workers at risk.
There is a new urgency however. That is the increasing number of manual handling-related injuries linked to psychosocial injury. Evidence is mounting that psychosocial injury eg stress, can weaken the body physically. This increases the risk of a manual handling injury. Mental stress can be caused by workers struggling with a taxing manual handling task. They may believe the work could be done more efficiently but are not empowered to speak up or ignored if they do.
WorkSafe Victoria has the capacity to easily visit many more workplaces on this topic this financial year than for many years because it has recruited a further 46 inspectors. These new inspectors will have completed their training on manual handling matters and will swell the ranks of those who will be visiting a range of workplaces where there is known manual handling risk – construction, healthcare, manufacturing and transport/warehousing. In Victoria alone last financial year inspectors conducted 45,311 visits to workplaces across the state, and issued 17,347 legal notices over various safety breaches.
In presentations around Victoria during WorkSafe month inspectors warned workplaces to get themselves in safety shape by putting control measures in place now, such as changing the workplace layout, improving work processes and introducing mechanical devices to reduce or eliminate the risk.
Visiting inspectors in all states are normally well briefed by their supporting technical inspectors and aware of the materials handling aids and equipment that is available and used in more productive and safer workplaces. Some examples of what they would expect to see in a safe working environment is the use of ergonomic trolleys, pallet loaders, lifting equipment and portable height access platforms.
Inspectors are now looking for tasks involving lifting, carrying and lowering objects. They will judge the level of demand on the worker and what, if any, control a worker might have over that work to make it easier. They will look for postures and movements that are known to stress the body and lead to an injury. They may ask the worker if they are having difficulty doing this work, if they are experiencing any physical discomfort and if they have been consulted by the employer. Inspectors have the power to compel answers to these questions to help them form an opinion as to the safety of the task.
If an inspector believes there is a risk of injury, compliance action will follow. It is within their power to provide constructive advice about how the risk might be controlled. This could include installing suitable materials handling equipment most inspectors probably know about and may have seen operating at other workplaces they have visited. That advice may be included in a legal notice and must be followed.