Despite the massive rise in the use of machinery and robotic equipment in industry, there are still many jobs which are highly repetitive in nature and will require management to keep a close eye on the health and wellbeing of their employees.
Repetitive tasks can pose a risk to both the mental and physical health of a person. These tasks are not just something boring a worker has to do one day such as going through and checking off items on an itemised bill, but instead are tasks where they have to do the same thing hour after hour, day after day and week after week.
As far as a worker's physical health is concerned, doing the same movements over such long periods of time can lead to conditions such as tendinitis, peritendinitis and carpel tunnel syndrome. If significant manual handling is involved in this work they can suffer other complaints including slipped discs and hernias. In this case health and safety training which includes a significant amount of manual handling training may be required.
It can often be overlooked by managers who just see a job that needs doing and assign a worker to do it, but the effect of repetitive tasks on an employee's mental condition can be severe. Just as stress can contribute towards mental health issues, extreme boredom through the endless repetition of a menial task can begin to adversely affect the mental state and wellbeing of an individual. It can also make them extremely demoralised, unhappy and desperate to leave the company which will result in recruitment costs and lost time as a new person is brought in and given all of the induction training necessary for a new starter.
The growing recognition of the effects that repetitive tasks can have on the health and welfare of workers, and ultimately the serious consequences and commonality of work-related mental conditions, has resulted in this whole subject area being given greater prominence on the syllabus of health and safety courses. These include the NEBOSH General Certificate and NEBOSH Diploma courses, not to mention those courses which are intended for managers like the 3-day IOSH Managing Safely course.
In order to combat and reduce the susceptibility and chances of a worker suffering a condition caused by repetitive tasks, steps can and should be taken which includes job rotation so that they have a change from doing the same thing all of the time, as well as performing risk assessments on their working area and ensuring that the ergonomics facilitate comfortable working over long periods of time. Managers also need to closely monitor workers who are engaged in repetitive tasks at work to try and prevent health issues occurring along with making sure that they take breaks when they are due.
Preventing Occupational Overuse Syndrome Risks in Health and Safety
Occupational overuse syndrome is a term used to describe several overuse injuries. These injuries affect the soft tissues (muscles, nerves and tendons) of the neck, chest, lower and upper back, arms, shoulders and hands. It is also known as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).
These injuries normally start as aches and pains and progress into more serious disorders that can have a negative effect on a worker's ability to perform at work along with their personal quality of life. It is for this reason that it is an important workplace health and safety concern.
Occupational overuse syndrome is caused by repetitive movements or awkward postures. Tendons are overworked and inflamed by the repetitive manual tasks demanded by a particular job.
What Are Some Symptoms of Overuse Injuries?
Although Occupational overuse syndrome is typically associated with repetitive hand movements (e.g. typing), it can affect any part of the body.
Symptoms will vary from person to person, including the location of the injury and how severe the condition is. Some common symptoms are:
- Muscle weakness
- Restricted and reduced joint mobility
Symptoms cannot be ignored as they will get progressively worse. It will lead to the point where the pain in the muscles, joints and tendons are painful even at rest.
Professions at High Risk of Occupational Overuse Syndrome
Any profession which involves manual tasks that are repetitive and fast, or where the person is in a fixed or awkward posture for long periods of time, are at risk. Some examples of these professions are:
- Process workers - for example packing and assembly line
- Office workers - for example clerical and typing
- Piece Work - for example sewing
- Manual Work - for example carpentry and bricklaying
Risk Factors that cause Overuse Injuries
Workplace practices and the workplace design are main contributors to occupational overuse syndrome. The risk factors are:
- Tools, furniture and equipment that don't match with the body easily
- Workstations and benches that are too low, too high or too far
- Machinery that operates too fast for the worker's comfort
- Workplace design that requires repeated stretching, bending or twisting
- Tight deadlines that make workers skip breaks
- Repetitive manual work
How can we manage these risk factors?
These risk factors can be managed by making changes to the workplace design, changing work practices and adjusting existing equipment and furniture to suit the worker.
Changes to workplace design:
- Use of ergonomic furniture and equipment
- Change the workspace to ensure everything is within easy reach
- Ensure benches are at waist height so that shoulders are not tense and elbows can bend gently
Changes to work practices:
- Schedule frequent breaks
- Rotate tasks throughout the day so that repetitive movements are alternated with other types of work
- Set realistic deadlines
Adjust furniture to your body:
- Adjust height of seating
- Sit on a chair with lower back (lumbar) support
- Use a footrest
As we've learned, occupational overuse syndrome is caused by repetitive movements and its risk factors must be managed. It is an important concern for the health and safety of workers, and the dangers and prevention of such injuries should be provided through health and safety training courses such as in-house manual handling training programmes.
Ergonomics on Health and Well-Being
It may be a fancy word, but ergonomics in health and safety is concerned with the way people use/interact with equipment in terms of comfort and preventing injuries such as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), whilst also focusing on the effectiveness and productivity allowed whilst using it.
Workplace users of tools and equipment will all be affected by ergonomics in some way. These users will come from virtually all industries, ranging from office workers who make use of computer chairs, typing wrist rests etc to construction site workers who use a range of hand-held tools and pieces of equipment.
Whilst a person may be able to get away with experiencing little or no discomfort in the short term, poor ergonomics can cause severe health and well-being problems for a person over the long-term if these issues are not addressed and rectified at an early stage.
Unless items are custom-built for a specific user, they will need to be adjustable so that they can accommodate being used by people of varying sizes, shapes and weights. Ergonomics also applies to work areas, and must be considered along with equipment during the planning stage of operations. A person who has to twist around awkwardly or carry heavy/bulky loads to perform their work duties will be at risk of conditions such as manual handling injuries. Ideally these risks need to be identified in the planning stage, and a suitable risk assessment may need to be performed before the work commences or before workstations are constructed to prevent it being an issue.
Why a Chair is a Crucial Health and Safety Component
With so many different types and styles of chairs in existence, they can often get overlooked as simply pieces of furniture which do not play much of a part in health and safety. When employers think about health and safety in the workplace, in addition to health and safety training courses they are likely to think of safety features which prevent horrific injuries and deaths from machinery or hazardous substances. The humble chair is likely to come quite far down the list in terms of issues, but nevertheless it is still a factor which needs consideration.
A chair will be a health and safety issue for those who spend most of their working day sat down. Those particularly at risk therefore include office workers and those at assembly lines who sit down to perform their particular task. The significant amount of time spent sitting in the same position means that it is vitally important for the chair to be comfortable and support the individual in a suitable posture.
Without providing this suitable support, over time a person will begin to develop certain troubles such as back problems. This can be extremely painful and debilitating, not to mention causing a serious amount of disruption and inconvenience to the company when the employee has to take time off work and they need to either suffer from a drop in overall output or spend time and money in finding a temporary replacement.
The serious consequences of an inadequate chair have meant that it is now a legal requirement in a lot of countries for employers to conduct ergonomic assessments of the workplace and provide workers with equipment such as a suitable chair, foot rests, wrist rests and back supports.
The early years of health and safety focused upon preventing deaths and serious injuries which, although commendable, did not extend very much towards less dramatic injuries such as those caused by inadequate manual handling techniques or poor sitting posture. As the years went by though, more and more attention was given to worker well-being and their welfare, as evidenced by the syllabus of the NEBOSH General Certificate course which contains a number of elements on topics including manual handling, psychological issues, employee welfare facilities etc, and not just focusing solely on accident prevention.
Employee welfare and well-being is an important part of modern-day health and safety provisions, and is something which all health and safety managers need to be aware of and implement within their organisation.