It’s no secret that musculoskeletal injuries from manual handling, repetitive overuse and working in fixed postures, are on the rise across a number of industry sectors.
We’ve all seen the Workers Compensation statistics from the various publications and no matter which way you look at them, the results are damning:
- Workplace injuries account for a $61.8 billion burden on Australia’s economy annually 
- 59% of all Workers Compensation claims result from a musculoskeletal injury 
- It takes the average employee up to 83 days to report a musculoskeletal injury 
- Nearly a third of injured workers who take more than 10 days off do not return to work for more than nine months 
But it’s no longer the chippies, the labourers, the warehouse operators and the process workers who suffer all the injuries.
In fact, it’s the flight attendants, the boilermakers, the child care workers, the train drivers and the call centre operators who are just as likely to herniate a disc in their back, impinge their rotator cuff, or endure the deep ache of tennis elbow.
This is despite the plethora of health, safety and wellness initiatives being peddled around the market as the latest and greatest solution; it’s despite everyone having a solution to the “ageing workforce”; and it’s despite injury management being everybody’s focus.
Faced with this, everyone assumes that injuries to muscles and joints at work are inevitable and that injuries are simply a “cost of doing business”. That doing the best for your employees equates to simply managing their injuries.
But what if instead of simply managing them, employers had a way to prevent them?
THE EVOLUTION OF ONSITE PHYSIOTHERAPY
A decade ago, the solution for a lot of these problems was to recruit the services of an Onsite Physiotherapist. Here was an allied health professional with hands as strong as a Sherman Tank and massage technique so deep it’ll feel like he’s drilling for oil in the Black Sea.
After a session with him people who have been stiff and sore for years have never worked with more gusto and efficiency. Injury numbers tumbled as operational productivity trends upwards. Workplace culture has never been so high – it’s like every day is Friday and it’s the boss’ shout at lunch.
But after a few years, employees aren’t getting better as quickly as they used to. Instead of a handful of sessions, they need as many as 2-3 a week for a whole month just to get through a busy period at work. In fact, injury numbers have started to creep back upwards. The Operation team is asking Safety Managers what’s happened to the impact and effect that this once glorious program had?
Fast-forward to 2016 and the term “Onsite Physiotherapy” is more common around a workplace than a twelve-year-old with an Instagram account, and it’s fast becoming an archaic one. Onsite Physiotherapists who can’t evolve are at risk of becoming the next fax machine.
You see, gone are the days where the idea of having a physio attend your workplace to provide treatment to your staff in order to reduce injuries was simply enough.
In today’s fast-paced age, companies want more from their health provider partnerships. They want them to be specialists in all things occupational health and beyond. Modern day Onsite Physiotherapists need to be able to understand the risks associated with poor ergonomic workstations and how to change them. They need to have knowledge of what other industries are doing to cull the rate and duration of injuries.
Companies expect their onsite physiotherapists to be out of the treatment room, at the coal face, proactively engaging with workers to change their behaviours and correct their movement patterns well an injury happens. Onsite Physiotherapists need to be accountable and communicate with key stakeholders across the business. They have to become strategic and offer a return on investment rather than a variety of treatment modalities. They need to transition out of a reactive injury management mindset to one of proactive injury prevention.
So with that in mind, here is my top 5 best practice, non-negotiables to help evolve your Onsite Physiotherapy service:
1. Back to school
Your Onsite Physiotherapist worked like crazy to get their degree at university, got a bunch of letters after their name and got a license to dig their thumbs into people’s necks all in the name of pain relief. While this is admirable, working in occupational health is stepping into another league with its own language. To be successful in this space, Onsite Physiotherapists need to shed their skin and evolve. They need to learn a few additional skills beyond delivering treatment and prescribing exercise.
Modern day Onsite Physiotherapists need to consider completing an Occupational Health Physiotherapy Course which will provide all the basics on how to conduct risk assessments, perform job task analyses and review the ergonomics of a workstation. It’s these kinds of skills that companies are now looking for – a service that will prevent the injuries instead of just treating them.
2. Transition out of the treatment room
Your Onsite Physiotherapist needs to leave the confines of the treatment room, put on a Hi-Viz vest and go interact with the workforce they’ve been treating while they are out at the coal face.
Just like a physiotherapist in a professional football club who observes the players run, jump, kick and tackle, a dedicated Occupational Onsite Physiotherapist needs to proactively go and watch the manual handling tasks performed by staff while they work and provide them with subtle advice regarding their posture and their technique so that they are more aware of their bodies and how to be mindful of avoiding an injury.
By making time to transition out of the treatment room it accomplishes two vital things:
(i) It sets the tone for any new staff member that this is “how we do things here at our workplace”.
(ii) It creates an opportunity for the Onsite Physiotherapist to become a valuable resource to management and gain insightful feedback from employees about how a new piece of plant is working or what the general feel of the workplace is.
Most importantly, any observations and insights gained form this kind of proactive roaming should lead to immediate action.
3. Crunch the injury data
The ability to capture, organise and extract insights from data has become requisite in every industry and function. Companies want to move from data collection to actionable insights so that better decisions are made by management on a daily basis.
So with that in mind, your Onsite Physiotherapist needs to start reporting on what it is that they are seeing out there, not just who they are treating. Where are the areas of risk in the company? Is it manual handling? Across what shift? Across what age profile? Which cohort of the workforce? Does the risk stem from culture or is it to do with the equipment being used?
Once they’ve uncovered the hazards and discovered their origins, the Onsite Physiotherapist needs to think strategically as to how the company can mitigate their risk. Consider what proactive initiatives can be delivered to ensure that the uncovered risk is prevented.
4 . Let them be your eyes and ears
Your Onsite Physiotherapist needs to be your eyes and ears on the ground.
They should be reporting back to you on any injury hot spots, they have observed and any training that may be required, or any high level controls that could be implemented.
As your dedicated resource, they should become your onsite problems solver regardless of what your own role is in the business. If you are a safety manager, then you may want to know about potential risks and hazards discovered and prevented. If you are in a HR role then you may want to know about the cultural improvements that have come as a result of the service. Operations Managers always want to understand if the service has made a positive return on investment on the bottom line (be it through saved claims or improved productivity).
5. Throw away the cookie cutter – one size does not fit all!
If there is one thing that I have learned after working in this industry for over a decade it’s that each site within each company I have worked with has their own unique history, experience, culture, values and risk profiles.
As such, the service being delivered needs to be innovative and tailored to the specific needs of the workplace.
Onsite Physiotherapists need not be afraid to attend 4am tool box meetings with truck drivers so they get to know them better, or to use employees from the company in their stretching posters or conduct the manual handling training out in the production areas as opposed to doing it in the board room.
Most importantly, Onsite Physiotherapists should always seek meaningful feedback from customers so they know if they are having the intended impact.
So there you have it – a simple but effective guide to understanding the difference between the ancient “break-fix” model and evolutionary “swim up-stream” proactive approach and how to get there.
Rod Hampel is the Head of Business Development and a Partner at Bodycare Workplace Solutions.
Should you have any queries about this article or wish to learn more, feel free to email Rod at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Lane, T. et al (2016) ISCRR Research Report 118-0616-RO2: Work Related Injury and Illness in Australia, 2004 to 2014 – What is the incidence of work-related conditions and their impact on time lost form work by state and territory, age, gender and injury type.
 Safe Work Australia (2016) Statistics on Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders.
 BodyCare Injury Management Report (2014)
 Safe Work Australia (2016) A Comparison of Work-Related Injuries Among Shiftworkers and Non Shiftworkers.