Managing Health: Workplace Safety: Bio-Physics and the Industrial Athlete

Despite your best efforts, employees continue to be injured. What can you do?

In an article in the September issue of EHS Today, we explored workplace risk reduction through early recognition of workers' symptoms. The message was that with early recognition of the symptoms characteristic of common overuse conditions, these conditions proactively can be addressed before they become costly injuries and open workers' compensation claims.

In the last two decades in particular, workplace safety has come to have many facets and strategies. From safety videos to safety meetings, and from safety training to safety awareness, it is safety education in general that has been a significant component in virtually every company's safety program.

Environmental safety perhaps has been as strongly as emphasized as safety education. Whether through engineering of the workplace or ergonomics, safety of the work environment itself also has been a tremendous focus of safety resources and safety programs alike.

But what does an employer do when, despite implementing comprehensive safety education and environmental safety programs, sprains, strains and overuse injuries continue to occur? Is it at this point that employers simply look at these types of injuries as a cost of doing business?

Remember, as was previously discussed, early symptom recognition is key in effectively managing at-risk employees who are working in pain. Once at-risk employees and their symptoms are identified, the question becomes now what?

EMPLOYEE MAINTENANCE

One area of safety not traditionally addressed but that is becoming more mainstream, especially in recent years, is employee maintenance. Companies allocate extensive resources and spend large sums of money to maintain their equipment, tools and machinery, but what about their employees? Don't they need to be maintained as well?

Just as professional sports teams go to great lengths to keep their players healthy, employers also should take measures to keep their industrial athletes healthy.

With an aging work force that's rapidly growing in numbers, employee maintenance never has been more important. With the first of the baby boomers turning 63 in 2009, the next 20 to 25 years of Boomers nearing retirement age will bring escalating challenges to employers in managing workplace injuries. In discussing employee maintenance, it is the “bio-physical” characteristics of the worker that must be addressed. Bio-physics specifically relates to employees' muscle strength, joint range of motion and endurance. These are the greatest determinants of muscularskeletal health.

A worthwhile employee maintenance program must be able quantify workers' bio-physical characteristics, correlate them to the job tasks they perform and improve them when deficits are revealed through bio-physical testing. Employee maintenance seeks to improve workers' musculoskeletal health so the physical stresses of their jobs can be tolerated without incurring injury. The greater the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles and joints, the greater the physical stress they will tolerate without becoming injured.

So, what to do once “early symptom recognition” is achieved? The answer is employee maintenance. Employee maintenance perhaps is the best mechanism to get on top of at-risk employees' aches and pains before they become costly injuries and open claims. Though employee maintenance and bio-physics may be new concepts in safety, they are important pieces in any workplace injury prevention program.

Given the theme of this issue of EHS Today, a great question to ponder is, “How many of America's Safest Companies are looking at employee maintenance?”


Benjamin Harris is a licensed physical therapist, operates out-patient orthopedic rehab centers in Washington State and is the Employee Maintenance Centers director for InjuryFree, a national firm specializing in at-the-job site injury prevention, ergonomics and ergonomic management software solutions. He has adapted the care delivery model in the health insurance-based rehab clinic to meet the unique needs of the industrial athlete and businesses alike. For more information about this article and opportunities for speaking engagements, visit http://www.injuryfree.com/safety to connect with Harris and the InjuryFree Team.

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