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Workplace injury affects two in three physios, survey shows

We conclude coverage of the CSP's 2004 Annual Representative Conference, which took place in Newcastle upon Tyne on May 12 to 13

Results of the CSP's largest-ever piece of health and safety research were revealed for the first time at ARC, exposing the full extent of the injury risk posed to physios by their jobs. 

The majority of physiotherapists working in the UK have hurt themselves while carrying out their day-to-day work, research by the Society reveals.

It shows that two out of every three physiotherapists who responded to a survey have experienced a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) at some time during their career. One in 16 physios moves within the profession or leaves altogether as a result of their injury.

The findings were made public for the first time at a packed fringe meeting at ARC.

Speaking to Frontline afterwards, CSP research and policy officer Warren Glover said: 'The study findings support the view that physiotherapists are vulnerable to work-related injury.

'But there are strategies that can be taken by both individual physios and employers to reduce the risks,' he added. 'The next step will be to identify the effectiveness of these strategies.'

The research was carried out by the Society's employment relations and union services staff, partly in response to a motion at ARC in 1999. The results show that of 2,688 physios who responded (a 73.4 per cent response rate), 67.5 per cent (1,815) reported suffering a MSD during their career to date, with 43 per cent suffering more than one injury.

However, only 16 per cent of the 1,815 had reported their injury to their manager, 12 per cent to occupational health, and only 10 per cent had filled in an accident form. This suggested 'a significant degree of under-reporting of injury', Warren said. 'If someone from the Health and Safety Executive or from personnel were looking at those figures, they wouldn't get an accurate view of what was happening.'

Of those reporting an injury, around 61 per cent sought informal treatment from a colleague, with only around 39 per cent consulting a doctor. And while some 59 per cent modified their practice, adopting preventive strategies to avoid making the problem worse or injuring themselves again, less than a third took sick leave (32 per cent).

The most common injury site was the back. Nearly half of respondents who reported having injured themselves at work experienced a low back injury, while a quarter hurt their upper backs and 33 per cent experienced neck problems. Hand injuries, including damage to thumbs and wrists, affected 40 per cent.

Spinal injuries were recorded as the most significant or serious injury, followed by upper limb injury.

The survey also asked about first episode of MSD and findings suggest that 'physios under 30 and newly qualified graduates appear to be most at risk,' Warren said. Fifty-nine per cent of physios experience initial onset of injury before their 30th birthdays. A third will injure themselves within five years of graduation.

'It is possible that age and initial onset of injury point to a vulnerable period when principles learnt in theory are not put into practice,' Warren said. He went on to suggest that risk assessment, supervision in early years of practice and sharing information about good practice could be ways to reduce injury.

Clinical specialty also had an effect on likelihood of injury: 31 per cent of the 1,815 respondents who reported an injury were working in general musculoskeletal outpatients when they experienced their worst injury, with 14 per cent working in neurological rehab and 12 per cent in elderly care.

Claire Sullivan, the Society's national health and safety officer, also stressed the importance of prevention strategies, saying: 'We need to ask when it is most important to use them.

'We appear to be good at dealing with problems when they arise, but not good at preventing them in the first place.'

At the fringe meeting, Council member Margaret Revie asked: 'Are there some tasks we should not do? Even though it helps the patient, we should not do it because it injures the physiotherapist?'

Claire responded that it might be a question of 'how far can we reduce the risks while still maintaining treatment modalities? We could reach a point where we cannot make modalities any safer,' she said, 'then we need to ask, "should we do it?"'


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