Work-Related Upper Limb Disorders

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published a new research report on the use of mechanical aids and automation for reducing the risks of repetitive handling tasks involving the upper limbs, in order to prevent work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs). WRULDs is a collective term for a number of physical conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tenosynovitis and tendinitis.

The aim of the research was to provide practical examples of risk control measures used in industry.

The report points out that limited relevant information is currently available on the use of automation and mechanisation as a control measure to reduce the risk of upper limb disorders.

Therefore, the report sets out 14 case studies, with the majority relevant in a variety of manufacturing settings. For most of the case studies, a “before” and “after” scenario is provided, where the task was previously manually performed and has since been automated.

iStock_000012301956MediumThe case studies illustrate how a variety of machines have been used in industry, e.g. in sealing boxes, packing sausages and fish filleting.

The report concludes that:

  • The equipment shown in the case studies within the report could be used in a variety of situations and discussions with manufacturers could help to develop bespoke solutions for organisations to reduce the risk of WRULDs.
  • Industry needs to carefully consider the use of mechanisation and automation – the introduction of automated systems may have unforeseen results and worker consultation is always recommended.
  • Organisations should reassess risks following implementation of automation or mechanisation, e.g. to ensure that new risks have not been introduced.

RR939: An Investigation into Mechanical Aids and Automation for Reducing the Risks of Repetitive Handling Tasks involving the Upper Limbs can be accessed on the HSE website.

Controlling WRULDs
Where the hazard relates to the operator having to stand, there are usually three means of control (assuming that it is not possible to remove the need to do the task standing). These are as follows:

  1. Job rotation, which will not remove the hazard but will reduce the risk.
  2. The provision of a height-adjustable operator chair, or some other means of supporting the body (especially the back).
  3. Redesigning the workstation or area to remove the need to stoop, reach, lean or stretch.

Assuming there are no problems caused by poor positioning of the work (e.g. twisting to view a display screen), the main risks are from an inappropriate or improperly-adjusted chair.

These risks can be controlled by ensuring that the chair is properly adjustable and suited to the user. Also, it is important to ensure that the operator knows how to adjust, and regularly re-adjust, the chair. Redesign of the work surface and area can be of great benefit. This should provide plenty of free space on the work surface and ensure that the operator avoids having the arms raised or twisted away from the trunk for extended periods.

5227716XLargeTools and Equipment
The principal risks in relation to tools and equipment are due to the need for excessive force and the use of the hands or other parts of the body in awkward positions. In many cases these awkward positions are not initially uncomfortable, but the effects tend to build up gradually over longer periods of time.

There are two main ways of controlling the risk. Firstly, reduce the level of force needed to undertake the task. Secondly, redesign the tools, particularly the grips to enable the user to adopt a more natural working position.

To reduce the force needed, a number of means can be employed. The most common are to make handles or levers longer to increase leverage, or to provide power assistance (such as the use of pneumatic tools) to remove the need for effort from the operator. However, it is important to bear in mind that the use of powered tools can bring their own problems, such as vibration and noise. These problems can, if care is not taken, negate the benefits obtained.

Lifting and Handling
It is important to investigate thoroughly any means possible to remove the need for operators to carry out manual handling tasks. For example, tasks that involve physical effort to lift, carry, move, push or pull any equipment, materials or other objects. However, it is important to be aware that this solution can bring problems of its own. For example, the use of conveyor belts to transport items may cause the operator to lose control of the speed of operation. Lifting aids, such as forklifts, carry additional risks if proper controls are not put in place.

If manual handling tasks cannot be avoided then a risk assessment must be conducted. This can identify aspects of the task, environment, equipment or work organisation that might be improved to reduce the risks. During risk assessments, it is also important to consider the person. There is a considerable variation between individuals in terms of their capacity to carry out manual handling tasks.

Next, employers should use the information from risk assessments to reduce the risks as much as possible. For example, this could involve changes to the way materials are delivered or stored. Alternatively, improvements to lighting or floor surfaces can make a big difference. Making allowances for rest breaks can also reduce the risks of injury when undertaking intensive manual handling tasks.

Additional controls to consider are instruction, information and training. Information on the load is important. Loads should be clearly labelled so that the weight and contents can be easily understood.

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