Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) represent nearly half of all workers' compensation claims in NSW, a figure broadly representative of other Australian states and territories. MSDs impose a huge cost on the industry for both workers and employers. Yet only in the past decade have governments, industry bodies and mining companies begun to work together to tackle the endemic culture that results in MSDs.
‘Musculoskeletal disorder' is a blanket term describing a range of physical injuries from simple sprains and strains to bone breakages, hernias, joint problems (e.g. chronic hip and ankle pain) and nerve injuries. They can occur suddenly as the result of an accident or overexertion, or develop over time with repetitive work or grow from ignored symptoms of minor tissue injuries. Permanent muscular and vascular disorders resulting from exposure to prolonged vibrations also represent a small but significant portion of MSDs.
Figures vary between the coal and the metalliferous and quarrying sectors, but the human and economic cost of MSDs is a cause for concern across both. NSW has the most complete statistics - between 2002 and 2006 the state's claims cost was $43 million, with the metalliferous sector accounting for over 60 per cent of this. In the coal sector, 2005-2006 was the worst year for MSD claims - over $12m worth at an average claim more than $13,000. In just four years, there were 263 cases of permanent disablement and nearly 250 people were lost to the industry.
MSDs are by no means unique to the mining industry, with many of the incident statistics reflecting national all-industry averages. In an attempt to deal with the unique risks in the sector, the NSW Mine Safety Advisory Council (MSAC) has produced several reports into MSD in the industry. Surveys and discussions undertaken by MSAC point to a combination of factors both tangible and intangible that contribute to risk in mining workplaces. Poor equipment design and adverse work environments (from poor visibility to uneven roads) were repeatedly mentioned, but so were aspects of workplace culture, such as a systemic macho culture and acceptance of risk. Many workers simply accept MSDs as "a part of the job" and overexert themselves to keep up with or support their mates, leading to underreporting and the exacerbation of initially minor injuries. At the same time, a lack of management commitment and a persistent prioritisation of more visible OH&S issues have been flagged as issues working against the reduction of MSD-related injuries.
Ultimately, many of the tasks involved in mining directly expose employees to risk factors. Forceful exertions, awkward posture, difficult loads and exposure to vibration are everyday realities for many workers - but that does not mean these should be taken for granted. Finding ways to decrease repetition, duration and incidence of risk factors should be a top priority for decreasing MSDs in the industry.
Key MSD risk factors
The NSW Department of Primary Industry website (www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/minerals/safety/world-leading-ohs/musculoskeletal-disorders) has a series of helpful tools, including training resources and the guide. Based on overseas and Australian research, the guide identifies the main causes of MSDs:
What can be done?
Effective action on MSDs requires a concerted effort by regulatory bodies, industry groups, employers and employees. Working towards a commitment to reduce the incidence of MSDs by at least 40 per cent by mid-2012, MSAC produced the Guide to the management of musculoskeletal disorders in the mining and extractives industry in 2009. It applies national all-industry guidelines and the code of practice established by Safe Work Australia in 2007.
As with any OH&S issue, MSDs requires a holistic approach that integrates new solutions into existing systems and sets clear objectives based on the needs of individual workplaces. While policy is important, the need for a workplace ‘champion' to advocate the cause is paramount. Not only does this give a bureaucratic policy a human face (especially in workplaces where an incident is yet to occur), it is more likely to encourage uptake and adherence.
"2005-2006 represented the worst year for musculoskeletal claims [in NSW], with costs above $12 million and an average claim of over $13,000"
Changing the culture may be harder. New workers or trainees may often work beyond their physical capacity for prolonged periods to prove themselves to their colleagues. Similarly, they may be reluctant to ask for help or be repeatedly given the jobs no one else wants. An ageing workforce also provides a challenge through its physical limitations and unswerving attitudes.
Increasing awareness is the first step, but introducing MSD prevention into existing training is essential. Identifying, isolating and minimising the MSD risks involved in everyday tasks can help workers stay safe at work and create a culture that actively prevents MSDs, rather than passively encourages them. As the biggest OH&S issue in the mining industry today, reducing MSDs in the workplace is worth the investment.