As we know, all employers have a duty of care to protect their employees from developing musculoskeletal disorders due to their work. Royal Mail takes this responsibility very seriously and places the safety, health and wellbeing of its people as the highest priority.
Collecting, sorting, distributing and delivering letters and parcels across the UK, by its nature, involves a lot of physical work. We deliver to 29 million addresses, six days each week and this is what makes us such a trusted and respected brand, something we are all very proud of. One important aspect we have to consider as we undertake our operations is the fact we have an ageing workforce: 75% of our staff are over 40 years old and a high proportion of individuals have worked for Royal Mail for most or all of their working life.
For many years, Royal Mail has had an ergonomics team that has been involved in the development of new equipment and working methods from the requirements analysis, right through to deployment. This allows refinement of the designs to meet the needs of users at any stage during the design and selection process, and often results in relatively small changes being made early on that have a major impact on usability.
User trials form part of the evaluation process and give a valuable insight into potential problem areas and solutions before designs are finalised. This saves problems being identified later on that may then be costly to rectify and result in musculoskeletal or other usability issues that are difficult to manage. Early engagement is key to success.
Manual handling is a common cause of musculoskeletal problems and the very nature of our work involves lifting, moving and carrying, so manual handling and its management is an area we keep a very close eye on, looking for new ways of working. Regulation places a requirement on employers to avoid manual handling activities where practical to do so and to assess the risk of those that cannot be avoided. Since regulations came into force, manual handling risk assessment in Royal Mail has led to many improvements in the activities carried out and, through our continuous improvement programme, World Class Mail, we have identified new, innovative and safer ways to operate. One example is the introduction of letter trays and roll cages to replace the majority of the mail bags, which used to be the main way of carrying letters and resulted in very physically demanding work.
A study of ill-health data in 2004 showed that sickness absence due to musculoskeletal disorders was highest in delivery postmen and women who carried a delivery pouch on their shoulder. Largely as a result of this study, a complete review of the way we deliver mail was carried out.
Now, most delivery staff work in pairs from a small van allowing much lighter weights to be carried and trolleys are available to move the mail for all suitable routes. This has led to a reduction in musculoskeletal disorders reported by our people.
We have an active wellbeing programme in Royal Mail: Feeling First Class. This programme encourages individuals to look after themselves and signposts them to support services such as our employee assistance programme. We also provide gyms at our larger sites and promote the benefits that regular exercise can have on physical and mental health.
Where problems do occur we have the support of a professional occupational health service that provides advice, support and case management on musculoskeletal disorders, supporting our employees until they are fit and well, and able return to work.
Dr Shaun Davis is group director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability at Royal Mail