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  • Case study

Taking a proactive approach to musculoskeletal disorders

Quality of Life Observer

- Corporate

- Apr 24 2015

While the job descriptions of a store cashier and an automobile factory worker have very little overlap, both these jobs can lead to the same work-related health issue: musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). But according to Ranjit Kumar of Tata Motors in India, a dedicated focus on employee health can bring these numbers down. 

There are two types of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD): those caused by short-term intense work such as lifting heavy objects; and those caused by long-term repetitive tasks, such as frequent bending or reaching. While the two types manifest in different ways, together these MSDs are the leading cause of work-related health problems in Europe

A workstation revamp

Tata Motors, one of India’s largest automobile manufacturers, has been in business for more than 60 years and has seen the world of automobile manufacturing evolve. “Over the years, technological advancements have made it possible for us to improve the design of our factory assembly lines,” says Ranjit Kumar, Tata Motor’s DGM for Safety. “Today it is very rare that employees suffer from musculoskeletal or chronic disorders.”

The company has installed machinery that handles much of the heavy lifting, allowing employees to avoid injury and focus on other tasks. While the repetitive tasks are unavoidable on an assembly line, the company has put a lot of thought into the design of its workstations. The height of the conveyer belt is sized according to the height of an average Indian, thus reducing the need for frequent bending or reaching.

A dedicated team of experts takes preventative actions and identifies areas of improvement on the factory floor as well. “If repeated incidents or those related to design aspects of a station occur, our planning group safety engineers and doctors come down to the site and evaluate and make necessary adaptations to the workstation,” says Kumar. 

Employees need a break

“It is also essential to give employees breaks from their work,” says Kumar, noting that all Tata Motors’ assembly line workers take breaks roughly every two hours and never work for a stretch of more than four hours.

While MSDs are commonly associated with physical work, a study of factory workers in China identified a link with working long hours and enduring high levels of mental stress as well. Researchers in Ireland also found that workers who felt supported by supervisors or colleagues were less likely to experience MSDs as they maintained better mental health and stress levels.

Whether employees are taking a break from the physical aspect of their job or simply de-stressing, the World Health Organization recommends frequent interruption of activity as well as taking breaks and alternating tasks. 

Regular checkups

Tata Motors requires employees to participate in yearly checkups to ensure that their health and resulting well-being are being looked after. “If any health-related irregularities are found, we take immediate action. We work with employees, managers and an occupational health doctor to find the source of the problem and provide medical treatment,” says Kumar. As MSDs are reported 1.7 times more among older employees, Tata Motor employees over the age of 40 are given the opportunity to participate in examinations twice a year.

These efforts not only improve the safety and health of workers, but it also raises employee engagement. “We look at the well-being of our employees as one of our prime responsibilities,” says Kumar. “When an employee is coming to a job, they should feel that they are provided with the proper tools and facilities. Our employees see and feel proper care has been taken by the management and this builds confidence and lifts the level of engagement.” 

The road ahead

While companies such as Tata Motors have equipment and procedures in place to minimize MSDs, this is not the case around the world. Today, MSDs are the second leading cause across the globe of “years lived with a disability” and account for more than 15 to 20 billion dollars in workers’ compensation costs each year. This cost – to employee well-being as well as employer budgets – can be reduced with preventative actions.

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