Picture athletes pushing their bodies to the extreme for hours every day. While you might envision professional athletes training for elite competition, this description also applies to the millions of men and women who work in industrial jobs — at refineries, manufacturing facilities, processing plants and other sites.
These “industrial athletes” have extremely physically demanding jobs that require lifting, climbing, pushing, pulling and twisting. Their daily activities may include leaning over while applying extreme force on a giant wrench or repetitive tasks that involve twisting multiple controls in rapid succession.
Like a professional sports trainer, I believe it's important to take a holistic approach to keeping “industrial athletes” in peak condition, from preventing injuries to aggressively treating injuries that occur both on the worksite and off the job. The ultimate goal is to ensure that these industrial athletes can perform their jobs optimally and reduce the number of days they lose to injury. By doing so, we can enable them to remain healthy throughout their careers and in the years that follow.
The best ways to prevent injuries include better ergonomic design of industrial equipment and processes and have everyone at the worksite make a strong commitment to safety.
Ergonomics continue to improve. Not until recently were industrial facilities designed with the human in mind. At older sites, designers only focused on the chemical and mechanical processes that were taking place, without considering how people would interact with those processes on a daily basis. In many cases, the problems in these older designs were glaring. To compensate for poor ergonomic design, workers would have to move in awkward angles to do their job. If these workers were out of shape or unaware of how to properly use core muscles in specific situations, they were more likely to be injured on the job and suffer chronic problems.
Because proper ergonomic design is not always possible, it is vital that industrial facilities remain vigilant about safety through educational programs, self-policing and onsite health care. At my plant, we adhere to the core value that observation and intervention promotes safety and prevents injury. We teach each employee to notice when his or her co-worker is incorrectly picking up a heavy object or performing a task at an awkward angle, and then remind them of proper form. This core value is reinforced with recurrent safety training, in the form of required classes and computer-assisted training that reminds employees of proper ergonomic form.
We also encourage our employees to take seriously their commitment to being industrial athletes by promoting a healthy lifestyle. We offer gym membership discounts, company-sponsored exercise classes and lunch seminars and health care services at our onsite clinic. Our full-service clinic offers full annual physicals and health risk appraisals, during which we can monitor their body fat, blood pressure, cardiovascular health and other factors. In addition, we counsel employees on medical procedures they may require and follow up with those who are recovering from surgery and those who are on short-term or long-term disability.
AGGRESSIVE INJURY TREATMENT
Our onsite clinic also is ground zero for treating injuries that occur on the job or after hours. The most common types of injuries we treat are sprains, strains and broken bones that affect the knee, back, ankle or shoulder.
A key component to our safety training is getting proper care immediately following an injury, no matter how minor that injury may be. We train our employees the value of icing the affected area as soon as an injury occurs. As a result of this training, employees have become conditioned to reach for an ice pack before even seeking assistance at our clinic, either on their own or by being transported by the emergency medical technicians who work onsite.
Through years of practice, however, I have discovered that the use of ice packs alone is not aggressive enough, and does not effectively meet all four aspects of the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) treatment protocol. To help alleviate the swelling, bruising and pain that result from many of the orthopedic injuries we treat, compression must accompany icing. I have tried using ice packs and bandages to achieve this combined treatment. But ice packs can be too cumbersome, leaky and not cover the entire area, and bandages only offer a minimal level of static compression.
Beginning in 2005, I added a new tool to our injury treatment regimen that enables us to deliver those two most difficult-to-manage aspects of RICE — ice and compression — and help our industrial athletes recover quicker. This tool is the Game Ready Injury Treatment System, which improves on traditional ice packs by delivering intermittent compression and adjustable cold therapy from a portable device. The combined pneumatic compression and cryotherapy aids in recovery because it increases blood flow and delivery or oxygen to the injured area, optimizes lymphatic drainage and stimulates tissue healing. The net result is less swelling, bruising and pain — enabling our industrial athletes to return to a high level of activity quickly after injury.
Since introducing Game Ready as an injury management tool, I have seen a dramatic difference in the rate of recovery compared to using traditional icing methods. For example, an employee with a moderately sprained ankle might have taken 10 to 14 days to fully recover. However, by effectively combining intermittent compression and cold therapy, recovery usually is reduced to 4 to 6 days.
In addition to this tool, I often prescribe non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs and recommend cortisone injections where appropriate.
THE EVOLUTION OF OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH
During the past 3 decades in which I have been involved in occupational health, I have witnessed the dramatic change in conventional wisdom about safety and injury prevention and treatment. The science of ergonomics has evolved, as has the realization that how humans interact with their workplace is vital for preventing acute injuries and chronic health problems.
At the same time, occupational health professionals have come to understand that industrial workers face the same physical challenges as athletes who constantly push their bodies to the limit. By taking a proactive approach that includes safety education, promotion of healthy lifestyles and aggressive treatment of injuries, we can ensure that our industrial athletes remain in peak condition while they are on the job and well into the years after they leave the work force.
Lyn Moore, RN, NP, COHN-S, is an occupational health nurse practitioner at a refinery in Northern California, where she has worked since 1987.