Droning on - The Changing Landscape of work related upper limb disorders and musculoskeletal injuries

Imojean Coward
Imojean Coward

Published: December 13th, 2023

7 min read

All industries can be affected by work related upper limb disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injury, tennis elbow and many more, making it one of the most common causes of workplace sickness. In 2022 alone there were 470,000 workers reported to be suffering from musculoskeletal disorders, resulting in 3.7 million working days lost in 2021/2022. Employees affected can range from those who carry out manual labour, to those who are office workers, sitting at a desk. Therefore, it is important that every employer is aware of the risks of daily activities, and how to mitigate these risks, to reduce injuries and protect themselves and their workforce. Recently Amazon have published new innovative ideas of using robots and drones which may be a solution to this issue widely affecting every industry.

All employers owe a duty to their employees, by exercising reasonable care to ensure that the system of work provided for them is a safe one. Many Statutes such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 have been introduced to provide guidance for employers and to protect employees in cases of breach of statutory duties by their employer. Due to awareness of potential workplace injuries, increased availability of insurance and the introduction of various statutes, employees are now considered to be in a privileged position in respect of claiming compensation for workplace injuries.

One common work-related upper limb disorder is repetitive strain injury, which is damage to your muscles, tendons or nerves caused by repetitive motions and constant use. Employers are legally required to address the risks associated with repetitive strain injury under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and the supporting regulations. Once employers identify risks present in their organisation related to repetitive strain, using risk assessments, they must take action to eliminate these risks or minimise them as much as possible. The identified risks and implemented procedures should be reviewed on a regular occasion to make sure they are effective in the long term and that employees are carrying out procedures in a safe manner.

Other common injuries contracted at work may occur through cumulative manual handling. Manual handling involves transporting or supporting a load by hand or bodily force. This may include actions such as lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying. When this is carried out repeatedly over long periods of time, it can result in cumulative disorders such as lower back pain and injuries to the neck, shoulders, and arms. The Manual Handling Operation Regulations 1992, as amended by the Health and Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002, require that employers avoid manual handling, so far as it is reasonable in practice, by redesigning the task to avoid moving the load or by automating or mechanising the process. However, if employers conclude their assessment of hazardous manual handling cannot be avoided; they should reduce the risk of injury so far as it is reasonably practical; considering the task, individual, load and the environment. Guidelines of how employers can prevent injuries is provided by The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, schedule 1.

The most common ways that employers can reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders is to break up the period of intensive high-risk work, design workspaces specifically for the task and the employee carrying them out, reduce the amount of twisting or stooping when carrying heavy wights and avoid lifting from the floor level or above shoulder height. Employers should also encourage their employees to talk about any problems or concerns they have so they can address these issues as soon as possible. This could be achieved by regularly supply employees with individual risk assessments for staff to undertake to identify the tailored adjustments that would personally suit them.

Referring to Amazon, their publication of plans to use drones and other innovative methods of reducing workplace injuries, will be introduced in roles currently carried out by employees, where people are more susceptible to developing injuries, such as repetitive strain or cumulative manual handling. Currently, they are trialling humanoid robots in their US warehouses; their aim is to free employees up to deliver better service for their customers. This could reduce cumulative manual handling claims, making these robots even more cost effective than initially intended. Unions have accused Amazon previously of treating their current employees like robots, suggesting the work they carry out is subject to repetitive and strenuous activities for long periods of time, though the said organisations were likely not proposing the wholescale replacement of humans as a resolution to their complaints in this regard.

Amazon will also be using drones to deliver packages in the UK from as early as 2024. This would expand their current Prime Air scheme from the US to both Italy and the UK. Although these drones will provide the benefits of reducing cumulative manual handling; they also present their own limitations, such as safety concerns for members of the public, range limitations, weight capacity, privacy issues for residents and potential job displacement. Therefore, these new processes may reduce personal injury claims from employees exposed to repetitive strain and other musculoskeletal disorders, however it may increase the likelihood of receiving claims for violating privacy and safety from the general public, as well as a variety of other legal issues. The key question is whether schemes like this will be worth the decrease in personal injury claims or whether they will give rise to further claims, reducing the confidence in the scheme and company overall.

Employers cannot afford to ignore this issue, as current estimates place the costs to businesses of workplace injuries across industries at £3.5 billion a year. Therefore, if companies are taking a proactive approach to prevent and promote early detection of musculoskeletal disorders, it does not matter how innovative these methods are as long as they are effective and comply with the legal regulations and guidelines. This will not only will this increase a company's productivity and reduce financial losses it will protect employees from accruing financial and personal losses due to personal injuries.

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