For many years now, the Italian ceramic tile industry has been working constantly to reduce the risks associated with manual handling of heavy loads. Over the years it has adopted important technical and organisational measures to reduce the occurrence of musculoskeletal disorders, in some cases based on shared protocols drawn up together with supervisory bodies and trade unions.

Musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most common occupational disorders and affect millions of workers throughout Europe.

In Italy, it is estimated that at least five million workers routinely perform activities involving manual load handling. The workers at greatest risk are those who perform manual tasks, especially those in older age groups.

Typically, MSDs affect the neck, back, shoulders and upper limbs, and in some cases also the lower limbs.

Rather than a single underlying cause, there are normally multiple factors that adversely affect the musculoskeletal system.

Work environments such as the ceramic tile industry have in the past been particularly exposed to risks associated with the manual handling of heavy loads. 

Today, there only remain a small number of activities relating to residual or ancillary operations in which manual load handling is required.

The diffusion of MSDs 

MSDs are the most common of all work-related disorders. According to an estimate of the Fourth European Working Condition Survey, almost one in four workers experience back or muscular pain of various kinds.
In Italy, the issue has been the subject of much attention since the 2000s and has been introduced into the National Health Plan (1998-2000) and the Regional Health Plan (1999-2001). Numerous strategies have also been adopted at a European level, particularly the 2020-2022 “Healthy Workplaces. Lighten the load” campaign aimed at raising awareness of the risks associated with musculoskeletal disorders and providing information on how to prevent and manage them.

The risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders in the ceramic tile industry

Following the introduction of large size tiles, the ceramic tile industry has focused strongly on the potential risk of accidents and the development of disorders associated with manual load handling.

Technical and automated solutions such as grippers with suction cups, automatic trolleys, anthropomorphic line-feeding robots and automatic packaging machines have been introduced to avoid these risks.

Risk assessment

Growing awareness of the issue has prompted Italian ceramic tile producers to draw up increasingly in-depth and detailed risk assessments for manual load handling based on internationally recognised methodologies (the NIOSH method for lifting and moving activities and the Snook and Ciriello methods for pushing and pulling activities). Methodical risk assessment has resulted in production lines being redesigned with the introduction of special technical means to limit manual load handling.

The parties involved in the assessments 

In the ceramic tile industry, employers, trade unions, supervisory authorities and companies collaborate continuously to achieve high levels of safety.

Over the years, the sector has adopted and implemented numerous health and safety protocols. Continuing the efforts initiated in 2000, Confindustria Ceramica, the trade unions and the Occupational Health and Safety Services of the Modena and Reggio Emilia local health authorities signed a memorandum of understanding for the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders in the ceramic tile industry.

The Charter 2000 for Safety at Work 

The above-listed parties are signatories to the document entitled “Charter 2000 – Safety at Work”, which was drawn up on the basis of workplace assessments and sets out concrete objectives for risk prevention.

General measures for protecting workers’ health include observing ergonomic principles in the workplace, choosing appropriate equipment and adopting production methods that minimise exposure to risk.

The regulations on handling loads in ceramic tile production facilities are contained in the Ceramic Industry Safety Manual published in October 2021. 

Risk prevention actions

The efforts made by the various bodies and associations to prevent MSD-related risks have focused on the following actions:

  • Improving risk assessment and promoting greater awareness of health and safety issues among all parties involved (employers, employees, health and safety officers, worker safety officers and company doctors).
  • Encouraging companies to adopt technical, organisational and procedural measures to reduce the risks of developing MSDs.
  • Promoting studies aimed at understanding the relationship between musculoskeletal disorders and work in the ceramic tile industry.
  • Intensifying collaboration with ACIMAC (Italian Ceramic Machinery Manufacturers’ Association) with the aim of developing more effective solutions to the ergonomic needs of employees and legislative obligations.
  • Carrying out information and training initiatives on MSD issues and possible risk prevention solutions and raising awareness among all stakeholders.
  • Encouraging worker participation in health and safety meetings.
  • Organising regular follow-up meetings to monitor the state of implementation of the actions set out in the memorandum.

Risk elimination measures

Technological advances combined with increased plant automation have resulted in the gradual elimination of the majority of operations involving manual load movement. Today, these operations are performed almost exclusively after machine malfunctions and during plant maintenance and product changeovers.

The Italian ceramic tile industry and risk factor reduction 

The measures adopted by the Italian ceramic tile industry in collaboration with the Health and Safety Services have helped to improve the conditions of workers in the industry and significantly reduce risk factors for the development of musculoskeletal disorders.