Consumer goods company cuts absence with occupational health physiotherapy

Manual handling training was part of a comprehensive programme to reduce musculoskeletal injuries
Manual handling training was part of a comprehensive programme to reduce musculoskeletal injuries

In a special report produced in association with occupational health physiotherapy provider Connect Health, we look at how over two years the service has collaborated with a global fast-moving consumer goods company and an OH service provider. The goal was to reduce sickness absence related to musculoskeletal disorders.

Connect Health has been providing an on-site occupational health physiotherapy service to a global fast-moving consumer goods (FMGC) company since 2015, in partnership with occupational health service provider Health Management Limited (HML).

Over the past two years, the collaboration between the organisations has grown, with the company experiencing reductions in absence related to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)

By outsourcing this service, the company was aiming to ensure a standardised service to its employees across the country, as well as getting a greater visibility of results and activity.

The company had based the initial service specification and predicted activity levels on its previous service, which was a reactive one that focused mainly on long-term absence cases. However, there was a lack of specific focus on occupational factors, which meant the service was not being used by employees as effectively as it could have been.

In the first nine months, the company focused on mobilising the service and gathering national data, with support from both Connect and HML. The company identified the need to shift towards a more proactive, prevention-based model. To do this, a collaborative approach was required in order to engage management, educate employees and change the reactive culture surrounding the management of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Timeline of introduction of the service

January 2015 to October 2015 – Contract mobilisation and implementation.

October 2015 – Analysis of site data to understand national picture and need to drive day-one referral.

November 2015 –  Beginning of line manager education and the day-one referral programme.

February 2016 – Development and delivery of specific manual handling training.

March 2016 – Start of on-site service evolution to increase presence of physiotherapy within the workplace, promote service, drive best practice and provide general health advice.

April 2016 – Start of ergonomic risk assessments and physical activity campaign.

September 2016 – Introduction of on-site exercise classes and functional rehabilitation.

November 2016 – Manual handling “Train the trainer” courses.

January 2017 – Ergonomic risk-assessor training begins.

The OH specialist lead for the organisation said: “As in most mixed work environments, absences due to MSD issues are either the top or second-highest loss in the business. The plan was to change the old reactive treatment-based physio service to a forward-thinking, business-driven proactive approach – Connect was totally engaged with this concept from day one.”

A key initiative at this stage was to drive day-one referral. This meant as soon as a problem was identified, the employee was referred into the service, rather than the issue being flagged days or weeks after the event. Day-one referral is vital to deliver the best possible outcomes, and ownership for ensuring this happened was placed within the line management structure of the business.

In November 2015, an education programme led by Connect was put in place with all line managers to explain the benefits, and this led to a growth in service delivery at the sites where the programme was located. This in turn led to the introduction of on-site physiotherapy at sites where there previously had been no service.

“Using the existing Health Management online referral portal, our line managers were asked to refer directly to physio services for management advice on day one of MSD absence,” said the company’s OH lead. “This allowed our employees faster, more direct access to treatment, and for line managers to offer meaningful advice regarding their employee’s absence.”

The success of the early intervention programme meant Connect was able to evolve the on-site model further, introducing greater prevention, assessment and rehabilitation services, to support the treatment-based approach that was already in place. What this has meant in practice is a greater visibility of the physiotherapist within the workplace, stepping outside of their previous treatment remit to drive best practice throughout the workforce; observing and correcting bad habits in routines; and promoting general good health practices.

In addition to this, the physiotherapist was carrying out patient-led assessments, supporting employees to successfully return to work, and general ergonomic reviews to support the health and safety teams at the company to identify, modify and manage risk, which is essential in this type of manufacturing environment.

Another priority was to address presenteeism – when employees are at work, but not working to their full productivity. This is commonly seen in people with MSDs who do not want to take time off work. This could be for a number of reasons – job insecurity, financial worries, or simply just a love for the job that means they don’t wish to stop.

Connect has introduced a number of initiatives to support the company’s employees:

  • Work-focused, functional rehabilitation classes have been introduced at sites to support employees who are returning from long-term absence, repeated absence due to the same condition, or those struggling to return to normal function and duties due to their condition.
  • Preventative exercise classes, including pilates, have been introduced to support employees to stay well at work, and to prevent injuries from occurring. This is an important step in moving the service towards a more preventative approach and away from being purely reactive.
  • Connect has worked closely with the health and safety functions at the company nationally, developing in-depth risk assessments. This includes evaluating processes, identifying risk and providing recommendations for change.

Training is another area where a collaborative approach has delivered huge advantages. Through its growing knowledge of the company sites, Connect was able to identify a number of areas where they would benefit from training packages designed to meet their specific needs – driving up understanding, and in turn, compliance.

Connect developed and delivered training, including the following:

  • Bespoke manual handling training for factory employees.
  • A manual handling “Train the trainer” package for sales-based employees.
  • Ergonomic risk assessment training for health and safety and line management.

This approach has standardised training in these areas, ensuring it is delivered in a consistent manner and is highly relevant to the audience. Making sure the training was effective is important, therefore knowledge transfer was confirmed through comprehensive pre- and post-training assessments.

The company has an active campaign focused on improving employee wellbeing. Connect has taken an active role in the campaign since it was rolled out nationally in 2016, providing mini MSD functional screening and questionnaires on MSD health and physical activity to employees who attended the events organised by the company. The data that is being collected through these events is helping to drive a programme of proactive activity in 2017 and at local site level, as well as informing its national wellbeing strategy.

Connect, HML and the company are continuing to work together in 2017 to ensure effective management of MSDs through day-one referral and immediate management, as well as collaborating on further initiatives to support employees.

Future plans include the development of training package for ergonomic risk assessments and the roll-out of proactive rehab classes/sessions on sites.

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