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3 Actions for food and beverage companies to drive down costly musculoskeletal disorder injuries

Food and beverage companies can significantly lower their cost of risk by implementing an ergonomic strategy that addresses musculoskeletal disorders.

cans on an assembly line

Fatigue. Muscle strain. Sore joints. Neck and back pain. Bodily discomfort can turn a worker’s eight-hour shift into a nightmare that grows progressively worse. And for those working in food and beverage manufacturing, processing, and distribution, ergonomic injuries are all too common.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows thousands of incidents of overexertion related to lifting and lowering and repetitive motion that required food manufacturing employees to take days off from work between 2017 and 2019 (see Figure 1). That’s already troubling, but this data doesn’t even capture the other side of the coin — those workers who are already feeling discomfort but working through it, perhaps not realizing that their pain is likely only going to get worse.

Lost days negatively impact companies and coworkers

Let’s take the example of a food processing employee whose job is to move packed boxes of condiments from a warehouse to a loading area. The employee is constantly bending down to retrieve boxes and walking a few feet before having to bend again to put each box down. Doing the task one time can be tiring; repeating the job over and over during an eight-hour shift multiple days a week can put that employee on the path towards an uncomfortable and costly musculoskeletal disorder (MSD).

MSDs are primarily a health challenge with the potential to affect employees’ quality of life. They are also a costly problem — Marsh data shows that strains or related injuries are the leading cause of workers’ compensation claims within the industry.

Aside from substantial medical expenses, MSDs often require days away from work. Marsh data shows that the average cost of a lost-time claim for food and beverage companies is close to $39,000. Beyond the injured employee, short-staffed shifts — already a major challenge as employers struggle to find workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — create more pressure on other workers.

MSDs are not restricted to bending and lifting. Reaching and twisting, common with employees on a production line, can also lead to neck, wrist, shoulder, and back pain.

Reducing MSD risks

Both employers and employees have a role to play in creating a safer workplace that reduces MSD risks and catches problems earlier through a three-pronged strategy focused on education, resources, and enforcement.

1.       Education

Many MSDs are caused by repeated movements and generally take a period of time to develop, which means they often affect long-time employees. But new workers are also at risk, mainly due to inexperience and insufficient training.

Employers should consider delivering an in-depth onboarding program that provides workers with an understanding of the potential injuries associated with the job. Training can focus on strategies to reduce risks — for example, proper bending and lifting techniques and warmup exercises that should be carried out at specific intervals to help workers prepare their bodies before starting or continuing tasks.

Behavioral-based safety programs allow employers to assess their employees’ behavior so they can identify warning signs and bolster training to address specific problems. Workers — and their supervisors — should be educated on the first signs of MSDs and encouraged to speak up and seek treatment. Some of the early signs include fatigue, soreness, diminished strength capability, reduced range of motion, and pins and needles in extremities.

2.       Resources

Although it is incumbent on employees to use proper posture while working, employers can provide resources to help them do their jobs safely. Carts, for example, are instrumental in helping food and beverage workers move items from point A to point B, while appropriate hand tools can help workers do their jobs more efficiently and effectively while minimizing wear and tear on their bodies.

Organizations should also consider the placement of items that need to be lifted — anything placed below a worker’s knees or above their shoulders requires additional force to lift. Placing boxes and crates above knee level reduces unnecessary bending. And it saves time: Research by Marsh ergonomists has shown that reducing 10 bends an hour for a single employee can save as much as 16 hours over the course of a year.

In addition, food and beverage companies can introduce shift rotations that allow workers to do jobs that require different muscle groups, reducing the potential for strain.

A gap analysis can help identify areas that require improvement, allowing employers to prioritize their investments and resources. Health and safety management procedures should be rigorously reviewed and improved.

"Employers can utilize a gap analysis to identify areas that require improvement and prioritize investments and resources."

3.       Enforcement

It is not unusual for employees to avoid using tools and resources because of a mistaken belief it would decrease efficiency. For example, they may not want to spend the time loading and unloading a cart. Supervisors have an important role in ensuring that tools and other resources are being used properly and at all times.

Supervisors’ walkthroughs provide an opportunity to identify visual signs of injury potential and discomfort, such as employees arching their backs, rubbing their elbows, or shaking their hands. Walkthroughs also provide an opportunity to ask employees about their health to determine whether there are any issues that need to be addressed. 

In-depth assessments of workers’ compensation claims data can help identify areas that require additional attention to help reduce MSD risk.

"Companies that demonstrate significant improvement in MSD-related claims may be able to secure better insurance coverage."

MSD risk reduction helps improve insurance outcomes

MSD risks are unlikely to be completely eliminated. But actions based on rigorous assessments and gap analyses can help food and beverage companies take incremental steps to reduce these risks, improving workers’ long-term health while reducing employers’ total cost of risk.

In a more difficult insurance market, companies with fewer claims — or those that can demonstrate significant improvement — may be able to secure more favorable coverage, which makes it all the more important for food and beverage companies to take action to address potentially costly ergonomic risks.

This article was prepared by Marsh’s Food and Beverage Practice, with contributions from Marsh Advisory’s Ergonomics and Workforce Strategies practices.

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