People today spend more time at work than anywhere else, so workplace health interventions are crucial.
At most of GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) UK sites, illness and injuries caused by musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have historically been one of the main causes of sickness absence of more than seven days. Tackling MSDs is, therefore, a longstanding strategic priority because it helps us to maintain a healthy and happy workforce, which, in turn, enables a better focus on the patients we aim to help.
The term musculoskeletal disorder refers to any injury, damage or disorder of the joints or other tissues in the upper or lower limbs or the back. Poor working posture, conducting repetitive physical tasks and even experiencing emotional stress can all trigger a musculoskeletal disorder in an employee.
As with many health problems, the earlier an MSD is identified and managed, the better the outcome. So, in the UK, we improve the likelihood of early intervention by employing in-house occupational health professionals to support staff at all our sites. If a musculoskeletal issue is identified, medical attention and treatment is easily accessible for employees through their private medical insurance benefit, which includes quick and discounted access to physiotherapy services.
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Improving workstation ergonomics to reduce the risk of MSDs developing in the first place is a priority for our offices. All office furniture and computer equipment is of a high standard, and ergonomic furniture or equipment is freely provided to employees who need it.
Staff in roles involving high-intensity computer use have access to rest break software, which will prompt them to take regular breaks. To counteract the challenge of low awareness and take-up of such services and equipment, we supply each department with trained facilitators, who regularly visit teams to talk about healthy ways of working and check the set-up of their workstations. Open-plan working and on-site fitness centres are also good for increasing opportunities for movement in the office and reducing the impact of static, or poor, working postures.
But our strategy for tackling MSDs at GSK also has to address the fact that there are many different types of employment in the organisation. For example, musculoskeletal problems can arise among our field sales staff, who often spend long periods driving during their working day. We advise them on appropriate car seat adjustments and require them to take frequent rest breaks.
We also provide those who suffer from MSDs with free ergonomic furniture and equipment to use when working at home. Mobile employees still work with laptops, smartphones and tablets, so we are developing short, animated video clips on how to use these devices safely and healthily, whether working on the move or at home.
In the research laboratory setting, activities such as pipetting, extensive microscope use, or working in fume hoods, can all cause ergonomic problems. So we conduct specialised risk assessments to promote healthy ways of working in that context.
Meanwhile, employees in the factory environment must follow a five-step manual handling programme to minimise risk of injury. We are also introducing ergonomic improvement teams at our manufacturing sites, comprising employees we have carefully trained to identify ergonomic hazards on the shop floor and seek corrective actions.
Our proactive approach to preventing and managing musculoskeletal disorders across the various GSK workplaces in the UK is paying off. The number of incidences of MSDs at our UK sites has reduced significantly in recent years, to the extent that these are now no longer the leading cause of sickness absence of more than seven days.
Nonetheless, workplaces are always evolving in line with new technologies and ways of working, and we must continue our efforts to improve workplace design in a way that keeps employees healthy, resilient and high-performing.
Martina Clooney is ergonomics and human factors manager at GlaxoSmithKline