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Are Your Workers Stretching to Prevent Ergonomic Injuries?

Originally posted by Jennifer Busick on May 6, 2015 on safetydailyadvisor.blr.com.

Overexertion, slips, trips, and falls cause 60 percent of lost-time occupational injuries in the United States and cost employers over $30 billion in direct workers’ compensation costs in 2013. One strategy you can use to control these costly injuries is an effective worksite stretching program.

The aging workforce is one factor that increases the likelihood of falls: the U.S. workforce is aging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of three individuals over age 65 will fall every year, and the incidence rate of falls begins to accelerate at age 45. You can improve the work environment—lighting, flooring, housekeeping—to prevent these types of injuries, but if you’re already on top of all of that, the next step to take may be to address worker factors like poor motor coordination and balance problems that increase the risk of falling.

Increased flexibility can decrease MSDs

An inverse relationship exists between flexibility and risk for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)—that is, as flexibility improves, employees reduce their chance of developing an MSD. Improved flexibility and range of motion in these three body parts will have the greatest impact on workers’ ergonomic risk:

  • Hamstrings. Hamstring flexibility relates closely to the ability to lift properly without injury. Individuals with flexible hamstrings can use the powerful muscles in their legs to bear the brunt of lifting heavy objects, while those who are less flexible often lift with their backs, putting them at greater risk for injury.
  • Shoulders. A larger range of shoulder rotation can help workers avoid injuries from reaching and pulling.
  • Trunk. Restricted trunk rotation is a common cause of chronic lower back pain, and a larger range of motion helps workers bend and twist without injury. Employees who have a range of motion less than 90 degrees are at increased risk for injuries, as are those with more than 30 degrees of difference in range of motion between left and right trunk rotation.

Tips for a successful stretching program

These three tips will help you establish a successful workplace stretching program.

  • Measure and provide feedback. Evaluate employees’ shoulder rotation, hamstring flexibility, and trunk rotation before the program begins, and compare their results to averages for their age and gender. Periodic reassessment can help them see their improvement.
  • Increase the challenge. As employees improve their flexibility and range of motion, the exercises in a stretching program should become more difficult; try for 3-month intervals. Not only will this encourage employees to keep improving their fitness, it will also stave off the boredom that can ensue when people repeat an exercise routine.
  • Make it mandatory. If you make stretching part of your voluntary wellness program, you may get limited participation. But stretching is value-neutral—it’s not likely to be seen as punitive or discriminatory, like weight-control programs or some other wellness initiatives—so you can require workers to stretch before their shift, during required “stretch breaks,” and at the end of their shift in order to ensure that they receive the benefits of stretching.