Musculoskeletal health: OPG, Modern Niagara Vancouver, Sun Life share tactics to battle injuries
Health & Safety ergonomics MSD MSI musculoskeletal disorders Sun Life
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is critical in keeping workers safe, but the gear can pose challenges when it comes to musculoskeletal injuries, according to Lisa Beech-Hawley, manager, health and safety program, corporate environmental health and safety, at Ontario Power Generation.
For example, at nuclear generating stations where radiation PPE is required, staff often have to don “bulky air supplied suits with hoods and booties, worn over traditional PPE,” she said. “All of which may exacerbate MSDs — hazards related to gripping, tool use, body movement and positioning and posturing of your head as it relates to visibility.”
Beech-Hawley shared her story with more than 300 workplace health and safety professionals from across Canada this week as part of a special panel discussion focused on musculoskeletal health, conducted in partnership with Sun Life.
While the terminology around musculoskeletal health varies — from MSIs to MSKs to MSDs to ergonomics — there is little argument that they are a major source of workplace injuries in Canada.
The number one hazard
Ken Brodie, health and safety specialist, at Modern Niagara Vancouver said it was “surprising” that MSIs were the number one hazard for his teams.
“Sheet metal is a huge part of our business, we do a lot with sharp objects, and we’re always working at heights,” he said. “So we thought, ‘OK, it will be lacerations.’”
Armed with that data, Brodie and his team set to do something about it. The first step was finding out the exact type of injuries.
“Where they back strains? Shoulder strains? Leg strains?” he said, adding that the company had an experience rate of 27.2% that was a surcharge on its WorkSafeBC premiums.
“It was scary, because we knew we were going to get some large hospital jobs,” said Brodie, including St. Paul’s, the massive new $2 billion hospital being built in Vancouver.
Modern Niagara Vancouver was planning to triple its workforce, so it knew it had to get a handle on ergonomic issues quickly, he said. Giving credit to senior management for support, he said the company immediately stepped up and decided not to just confront the problem but treat it as an opportunity.
“We have to do it right, and we have to include the following goals — it has to be effective with measurable impacts. It has to be significant with an overall impact to our workforce, and it has to be sustainable over a long period of time,” he said. “We didn’t want our workers to join something — and our management — and then backslide later on.”
Engineering controls were the most desirable, he said. For example, in the fabrication shop, they installed roller tables and came up with strategies for band saws and tall pipe machines to reduce stretching.
“Everything was right at hand. It’s like when you’re working on your laptop. You want everything within reach, right? You don’t want to be stretched, you don’t want to be bending (and) leaning down,” said Brodie.
They also invested in mechanical lifting devices, and designed new pipe storage racks, to move material from one section of the building to another without requiring any manual lifting.
The changes weren’t just limited to the factories and the field — the company also looked at its offices with an ergonomic view and installed stand-up desks, new office chairs and ergonomic mice and keyboards.
Simply providing the equipment, though, isn’t enough to drive improvement, said Brodie.
“If you have everything you can buy, that’s not going to fix your ergonomic problems,” he said. “The myth is that just because you buy it, you’re going to use it. But you have to actually train the workers on how to use this right and sit properly. If they’re still straining, if they’re still crouching down looking at the screen, right? It’s not working.”
Focus on prevention
Sue Praught, organizational health consultant, integrated health solutions at Sun Life, said the key to musculoskeletal health is a strong focus on prevention.
“Many employers feel that, from the ergonomic standpoint, you only have to worry about people who have a musculoskeletal injury like a bad back or strain injury,” she said. “But ergonomics is actually critical for everybody.”
MSK injuries don’t happen with one single event. It’s a cumulative injury that is driven by repetitive daily tasks that lead to wear and tear on muscles and tendons over time, said Praught.
She pointed to a 2023 study from Benefits Canada that found 72% of employers said they supported employees who are having MSK issues. But the same data found high percentage of workers — 65% — felt their work environment was “actually creating aches and pains,” she said.
There’s also a tendency to put physical injuries in issues in a little box, and forget there is “much more” to MSKs, she said.
“There’s a strong linkage between physical health and mental health. We know this. When you’ve got chronic pain, you feel crummy,” said Praught. “If the design of your work environment isn’t great, and you start to have discomfort, you’re less productive. It impacts your mental health and wellness.”
OPG’s strategy to reduce MSI-related injuries
At OPG, Beech-Hawley talked about how they managed to drop MSI-related issues from 40% to below 25% of all recordable injuries. The company was making progress at reducing injuries from high-risk activities, such as falls and electrical contacts, through focus efforts on those issues.
One of the challenges is that many MSI injuries are simply not reported in the same manner as other workplace hazards, she said.
“Most workers and supervisors didn’t really make the association between work and MSD,” said Beech-Hawley.
“There’s a culture on the industrial side to just get the job done and not complain, and it’s just part of the job to be in pain all the time.”
That prevented people from speaking up, especially for lower-level injuries or discomfort. OPG started using the Ontario MSD prevention guideline. It started with a gap analysis of the program against the elements listed in the guideline and led to a multi-year strategy.
Critical to that was co-operation and commitment from senior management, and OPG’s unions, on tackling the issue. That led to the creation of an e-learning course on MSD prevention and hazards.
“As Ken said, you have to train workers in the hazards that they’re exposed to, and the equipment that you’re providing them,” she said. “We included testimonial videos from actual employees, in both our industrial and office environments, who had experienced MSDs (and) who talked about how impactful that was on their life.”
Watch the webinar
See the full discussion here: