Hawke’s Bay packhouse workers using a prototype table developed by Massey University. Photo supplied.

“Prevention by design’’ has been the intent of a multi-year Massey University study into sprains and strains suffered by workers in Hawke’s Bay primary industries.

In conjunction with horticulture and agriculture partners, and the Hastings Health Centre, Massey attempted to find out why the number of sprains and strains were so high and if modifications to equipment could reduce or even eliminate them.

Sprains and strains might not sound that injurious to workers and businesses, but the baseline data provided by Massey is quite compelling. In 2021, 233,300 work-related claims were made to ACC. Of that total, the highest proportion – 38 % – was sprains and strains.

All up, those 233,300 claims cost ACC $132 million and removed 1.3 million workdays from businesses.

Back in 2016, sprains and strains comprised just 8% of work-related claims.

Project coordinator in Hawke’s Bay, Mark Hurdley, first had to gauge the extent of the issue here, before the seven-strong research team provided prototypes to businesses in the hope of finding a solution. The research team spent time at farms, orchards, packhouses and meat processing plants observing and interviewing workers. Not to mention at the Hastings Health Centre.

What emerged was a cultural issue as much as a physical one, made slightly more complex by the preponderance of workers here as part of the Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

“There’s a couple of things that are in place in Hawke’s Bay that try and encourage reporting of injuries among RSEs,’’ Hurdley said. “It’s a well known fact that a large proportion of RSEs work through the pain barrier. They’re fearful that if they declare injury, essentially, they won’t get the work. 

So, there’s a couple of initiatives we delivered throughout the project.

“The first one was in collaboration with WorkSafe, which is their Puataunofo strategy, which effectively translates into get home safely. That was quite eye opening to see which employers rolled that out and which ones don’t.

“The other area where we saw a lot of action was the Hastings Health Centre ran specific worker welfare clinics. “One of the doctors at the Hastings Health Centre ran specific clinics which he coordinated with the pastoral workers out in the horticulture industry and basically allocated a time slot for them to be brought in and that’s when we were there doing a lot of the data collection.

“There’s an increasing number of industry partners that are proactively encouraging their workers to declare injuries and show that real pastoral side. Inevitably, though, that is a very hard nut to crack in terms of being able to identify how many don’t declare and how many don’t report. Obviously the industry knows that there are niggles and sprains and strains out there that don’t necessarily make it into the Hastings Health Centre or indeed make it to the health and safety team on site.

“So, to answer your question brutally, you can’t accurately put numbers on it straight away. What you can do, and what the project is trying to do, is see where the problems are coming from. 

“Not just through the clinical data, but going on site and conducting interviews with the staff and providing what we might call a safe space environment where they are encouraged to speak up around where they see these injuries coming from. What do they consider the most uncomfortable activities that they are required to undertake etcetera?

“We certainly found that those [businesses] where the workers were employed directly were a lot better than where agencies were involved. And, of course, a lot of that is to do with the way the agencies are effectively paid. If the workers aren’t working, the agency doesn’t get paid, whereas those who are contracting the workers directly have a much greater sense of responsibility and duty of care so that was quite interesting.’’

The research team led by associate professor Ian Laird, found it wasn’t just repetitive stress that was causing injuries to workers picking fruit, for instance.

“The most common cause of injury is missing the bottom step of the ladder,’’ said Hurdley.

“No word of a lie, I’ve sat in the Hastings Health Centre and run several surveys and missing the bottom step of the ladder came up time after time. “A couple of the organisations have literally got stickers that they provide to the workers that they put at the relevant part of the ladder so that they know where they are, so when they’re wearing that harvest bucket and they’re dismounting the ladder, they know where they are based on where the sticker is. It’s simple but effective.’’

A prototype ladder to assist pickers is still in the pipeline. The basic aim of that is to increase the surface area.

Work on the project finishes in June and other prototypes were developed and trialled for packing fruit and docking sheep, 

The electronic docking iron used at Pamu Farms’ site at Ahuriri enabled the one staff member responsible for docking sheep to dock between 200 and 500 more lambs a day. In one particular day, the estimated total of docked lambs rose to 1750.

At $2000 a pop, the electronic docking irons aren’t inexpensive, but the key metric is output, Laird says.

“A lot of the prevention programmes previously have been behaviourally focused and not really addressing the productivity issue,’’ Laird said. “Where, if we’re focusing on design and actually eliminating the issue, or designing out the issue, the direct link with productivity should be a really good fish hook hopefully. But those cost benefit numbers have got to be right.’’

Anecdotally, adjustable tables used to pack fruit at Bostock and Sunfruit were well received too.

“This project has allowed us to involve our employees in the design process, using their own experiences to influence what new solutions might look like,’’ coolstores manager for Bostock Jared Miskell said. “I’m excited to see how the team can further refine these prototypes so that we can see them as commercially available products.’’

That was echoed by Sunfruit Ltd health and safety manager Guillaume Thomas. “Preventing sprains and strains in the workplace is crucial for maintaining worker wellbeing,’’ he said.

“By focusing on these preventative measures, we not only safeguard the health of our employees but also enhance overall efficiency and job satisfaction. 

“This project has been incredibly useful in supporting our internal processes and has encouraged us to think proactively about how we can implement the project’s findings in the future.’’

Importantly ACC are similarly enthused.

“We’ll look at a potential scale up now,’’ said Laird. “ACC are interested and it’s about getting some estimates done and working out what’s the likelihood and potential for scaling up nationally. They’re very interested in that.

“The long term target outcomes are really focusing on a significant reduction in strains and sprains.’’

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air


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