Manufacturing in the UK has a long and glorious history from igniting the Industrial Revolution in the 1760s to producing cotton, coal, ships, steel, machinery and chemicals to export to the rest of the world.
Today, the UK manufacturing sector is smaller but still significant to the economy, employing 2.7 million workers – 8 per cent of the workforce – and accounting for 45 per cent of exports and creating 10 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
A healthy manufacturing sector will help to create a successful economy. But increasingly the wellbeing of the manufacturing sector will depend on the health of an ageing workforce. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that injury and sickness among the workforce is costing manufacturers 1.2 billion a year. Half of that cost is due to injuries suffered at work and half down to new cases of work-related illness. An estimated 2.4 million working days are lost to injury and illness – the equivalent of 11,000 manufacturing workers being off work for a year.
Each year, some 80,000 manufacturing workers (three per cent of the workforce) miss work through work-related illnesses and 70,000 (two per cent of the workforce) are absent through an injury at work, HSE figures show. The main causes of injuries at work are classified as:
- lifting and handling (25%);
- slips, trips and falls (21%);
- being struck by an object (12%);
- contact with machinery (12%).
The two main causes of sickness absence in the manufacturing sector
Sickness absence is an often overlooked but significant factor in the productivity of British industry, and recent figures show that productivity in Britain is the lowest of all G7 countries, except Japan.
Significantly, a recent survey of manufacturing companies by the EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, found that 41 per cent reported an increase in long-term sickness absence among staff.
Half of work-related illness is due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). These are defined as injury or pain to the joints, muscles and nerves that support the back, neck and shoulders. Heavy lifting, repetitive movements like twisting or bending round are all known to put pressure on a person’s back, neck and shoulders. Back pain can be short-term and eased by a change of task, but can also be long-term and debilitating.
Mental health problems
31 per cent of work-related illness in manufacturing is down to stress and mental illness. This figure is lower in manufacturing than across the general work force, but it is still significant. These problems include depression, stress and anxiety and can be triggered by overwork, lack of managerial support, the pressure of targets and deadlines and emotional trauma, like bereavement. A happy and healthy workforce is three times more productive, more motivated, more engaged in the aims of the company and more resilient to change than other workers. The message is that happy workers are less likely to take time off.
Other statistically less significant, but still notable, causes of sickness among manufacturing workers include:
- breathing and lung problems;
- occupational asthma;
- occupational cancer;
- skin disease (e.g. contact dermatitis).
Taking action to manage sickness absence
The EEF survey also uncovered, “disappointingly”, that only a third of companies measured the economic cost of staff sickness absence on their business, which means that many companies continue to have little understanding of the real financial impact of sickness absence among their workers. Not knowing the true cost is likely to stop many businesses from taking action to reduce illness and avoid injuries.
There are a number of actions employers can take to manage short-term and long-term absence beginning with the first vital step of keeping records of absence and monitoring them regularly.
- Return to work interviews.
- Trigger mechanisms to highlight high sickness absence.
- Risk assessments to identify potential dangers to workers’ health.
Long-term absence (four weeks or more):
- Return to work interviews and continued contact throughout the period of absence.
- Use of occupational health professionals to help the return to work process.
- Reviewing work duties or changing the working environment (reasonable adjustments).
Support from Fit for Work
Anyone dealing with issues around health and work, either directly or indirectly, can access the free Fit for Work online resources (guides and blogs), or make contact with the Fit for Work team for advice or guidance by:
- calling the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh);
- emailing a question;
- taking part in live chat.
Employers or GPs can refer employed people to Fit for Work who have been off work for four weeks or more (employees can request a referral from their GP or employer). Eligible employees receive a free occupational health assessment to identify obstacles preventing a return to work and culminating in the production of a Return to Work Plan.
Manufacturers based in the West Midlands can access manufacturing-specific resources on the Fit for Work website.
There is a separate service running in Scotland – fitforworkscotland.scot (0800 019 2211).