The safety/fitness connection

April 30, 2003
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With Baby Boomers hitting their fifties, employers are feeling the impact of the aging workforce. According to the Surgeon General, 60 percent of adults are overweight and out of shape - primary risk factors for cumulative trauma disorders to backs, knees, shoulders and necks. These injuries make up half of all workers' comp and healthcare costs. Clearly, there is a great need to help workers improve their fitness and adopt healthier lifestyles.

It's not that employers haven't tried. Annual health fairs can raise awareness, lunchtime aerobics classes may appeal to some employees. Some employers have invested substantially in professional quality onsite gyms only to get 15 percent participation. When I tell employers we get 85 percent to 100 percent participation every day in the programs we offer, they scratch their heads and ask: "How do you do it"?

Filling a gap

Without hesitation, I tell them, "You must make the safety/fitness connection." Integrate fitness into your daily safety routine and you fill a gap that has too long been missing from injury prevention programs. Basic flexibility, strength and knowledge about fitness and health are an individual's most important safety asset. Fit, healthy workers of any age are more productive and less likely to be injured - at work or at home.

Employers must encourage workers to adopt healthier lifestyles, improve fitness and reduce risk factors for injury. Here are ten things you can do to make the safety/fitness connection and get results.

1. Management must set the priority - When you firmly link fitness and safety in your training, your systems and your culture, you can easily justify the requirement for 100 percent participation. Senior management must set the priority, provide the training and systems, and support the program - top down.

2. Make supervisors accountable - We know that the success or failure of any safety program is directly related to supervisor involvement. They must understand the role of fitness in preventing injury and translate the safety/fitness connection to the workers.

A core process of implementing a fitness program into the daily safety routine must be supervisor training. They must know how to lead, apply positive reinforcement, give constructive feedback, set goals and use team-building techniques - as well as be accountable for maintaining participation.

3. Make it easy & fun - People like to do things that are fun and make them feel better. Making them do crunches or aerobics could send them out the door! We've found that daily stretching is a first step everyone can take. Just ten minutes can immediately relieve tension, stress and pain. Daily stretching can improve posture and basic strength.

Once employees learn they can do something physical and it feels good, they'll keep doing it. People tell us they look forward to coming to work in the morning since starting the stretch routine. A supervisor at a public agency using our fitness program says his company used to start work ten or 15 minutes late every day because of stragglers, but now everyone gets to work on time so they won't miss the stretch routine.

4. Measurement - People like to be measured - how far they've walked, how much weight they've lost. You can measure flexibility using standard equipment and repeat periodically to show workers how they've improved. Employees tell us they look forward to flexibility testing. (Lack of flexibility is a key risk factor for musculoskeletal injury.) Stretching improves flexibility and strength, and can aid in weight loss.

5. Frequent visits of qualified trainers - It takes professional skill to improve the fitness of a large population. It's not enough to have a chiropractor or physical therapist demonstrate a few stretches a couple of times a year.

If you really want employees to challenge themselves to improve, you must provide a professional they can trust. Qualified trainers with excellent people skills must visit the site often to help supervisors train, deliver encouragement, provide constructive feedback and measure and process results.

6. Deliver safety training during the fitness routine - Make your stretching time a health and safety meeting. In our program, we provide scripted, short safety messages with supervisor leader notes for every day of the year. Topics include biomechanics, ergonomics, risk factors for back and other soft tissue injuries, health topics and general safety topics such as near-miss reporting and housekeeping. Keep attendance and provide quizzes to document the training.

7. Make the program relevant to the work - Photograph workers performing their tasks. When they see the stress they routinely put on their bodies, and learn that flexibility and strength can prevent injury, they quickly make the safety/fitness connection, and you get personal buy-in. We use site photos during program orientations and to train workers on biomechanics to more safely perform the tasks. The fitness program can be designed to counteract the effects of repetitive stress and strain inherent in their work and their activities at home.

8. Public scorekeeping - Most health clubs use scorekeeping to track attendance and fitness goals. The same applies at work. Individuals like to know how they are doing and how their team members are doing.

One of our most popular core processes is posting individual, team and organization flexibility scores. Each quarter, teams crowd around the bulletin boards to see the results. This stimulates friendly competition, as employees enjoy getting together at the start of the day and encouraging each other to do their best.

9. Add variety - Studies show boredom creates "exercise drop-outs." People lose interest doing the same thing over and over, like walking or riding an exercise bike. Without variety and challenge, employees will drop out, or simply go through the motions without getting the benefit. People who adopt a lifetime of exercise regularly mix up their routine. As a core process, we provide new stretches every quarter.

Once employees feel comfortable with a daily fitness routine, you can increase the intensity and personalize the program. We add "fitness sticks," calibrated to coincide with our flexibility measurement software, to improve shoulder and trunk flexibility and help improve postures. Later, we add stretch cords of varying resistance to introduce balanced strength. The important thing is that employees can use the equipment to increase the challenge at their own pace.

10. Reward results - Reward employees and supervisors for participation and engagement in the safety process and the fitness program. Integrate fitness participation in your safety recordkeeping system and audit frequently. We've developed a comprehensive computer program that tracks the systems we install; however, a number of programs are available that may be adapted for your use. Management should discuss fitness participation and improvement data at staff and employee meetings along with their safety performance measurements.

SIDEBAR: Need a lift? Don't strain yourself

With back injuries among the nation's top workplace safety problems, preventing them is a major challenge. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lifting is one of the biggest causes of back injuries.

There are ways, however, that you can help your employees avoid back troubles due to poor lifting techniques. Suggested administrative and/or engineering controls for preventing lifting injuries, according to OSHA Fact Sheet No. 93-09, include:

  • Training employees to utilize lifting techniques that place minimum stress on the lower back.
  • Offering physical conditioning or stretching programs to reduce the risk of muscle strain.
  • Reducing the size or weight of the object lifted.
  • Adjusting the height of a pallet or shelf - lifting that occurs below knee height or above shoulder height is more strenuous than lifting between these limits.
  • Installing mechanical aids such as pneumatic lifts, conveyors and/or automated materials handling equipment.

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