The world over, back pain is a leading cause of disability, absenteeism and incapacitation. In industries such as mining, where a considerable proportion of the workforce is engaged in physical labour, what solution is available to prevent initial back pain progressing to serious injury or disability?
A local integrated risk management solution estimates that 15% of lost productive time due to absenteeism stems from back pain in certain high-risk industries that are reliant on employees’ physical strength such as building, mining, and heavy industry, representing a significant financial burden to these South African employers.

“Such cost drivers are frequently accepted as necessary business expenses rather than being proactively managed. Missed opportunities to prevent back pain from developing into incapacitating or costly health conditions can be devastating for affected individuals, and also lead to spiralling costs for the employer,” says Dr Jacques Snyman, clinical development expert for Agility Corporate.

“Chronic back pain is undoubtedly also a burden on a country’s economy. While comprehensive South African statistics on this are elusive, it has been estimated that this condition costs the US as much as $93,5-billion annually in both direct and indirect expenses. This gives us an indication of the scale of the problem, as the World Health Organisation notes that the prevalence of back pain is largely similar across the globe.”

Dr Snyman points to the example of a mineworker whose job involves heavy lifting. “If such an employee begins to experience even mild back pain, is a warning sign that needs to be identified early and addressed effectively,” he notes.

“All too often, the pain escalates and the staff member is unable to be optimally productive and eventually begins to miss work. Even then, without an effectual absenteeism management system in place, the employer may not be equipped to realise that an employee is at risk and take appropriate action to manage their recovery.”

Agility Corporate offers a set of integrated mechanisms to identify and manage potential risks, offering a single point of contact to support health and wellbeing initiatives in the workforce on behalf of companies across various industries, including mining, agriculture and hospitality, providing a convenient solution to complex and interrelated challenges.

“When at-risk employees are identified early and assisted to manage their health conditions effectively and appropriately, they remain healthier and more productive, which has considerable benefits in terms of the bottom-line and balance sheet savings for the employer,” Dr Snyman explains.

Agility Corporate’s occupational health offering, employee wellness programme and healthcare cover options not only assist in identifying risks, such as back pain, but the seamless end-to-end solution also ensures employees have access to an appropriate level of care to resolve the problem before it progresses.

“For a staff member who suffers from back pain, simple interventions such as teaching the correct method for lifting to prevent placing unnecessary strain on the back, physiotherapy and supportive braces can prevent more significant damage, particularly when these measures are put in place early.

“This often pre-empts the need for more costly curative solutions, such as spinal surgery, and prevents additional harm. People who suffer from back pain often rely heavily on painkillers for symptom control, which has a negative impact on quality of life and work performance.”

Even where a company is able to identify the warning signs, not only of back pain but also of other chronic conditions such as lung diseases, hypertension and diabetes, Dr Snyman observes that a silo-based approach to the health and wellbeing of staff can frequently, if inadvertently, fail to close the circle of care. “This can result in high-risk employees’ conditions deteriorating, sometimes to the point where they may even need to be medically boarded.

“Over years, the costs of lost productivity arising from back pain can be significant and, where the condition is permitted to escalate, the employer must often incur a new set of expenses for recruiting a replacement and investment in their training due to loss of valuable skills,” he points out.

Productivity expert and Agility Corporate executive Lizette Bester points out that these are costs that many mining operations in South Africa, particularly smaller emerging mines, can ill afford due to the highly regulated environment in which they operate.

“From a group risk and employee benefits perspective, integrating all contributing elements of risk for a more effective, holistic solution not only cuts down on administration costs and provides a more holistic view of human capital risk, but can also serve as a basis for negotiating lower group risk premiums, as the efforts to mitigate such risks are demonstrable,” she adds.

“The direct savings in terms of reduced absenteeism and up to 10% lower group disability premiums, coupled with indirect savings including improved productivity due to employees being healthier and more engaged, clearly demonstrate the value of an integrated approach to wellbeing, health and employee risk benefits,” Bester concludes.