Four years ago, workers' compensation costs in the New England region of Waste Management Company averaged $3,000 per claim. It's not surprising, considering hourly workers pick up literally tons of trash for nine hours a day, according to Dan Reynolds, the environmental health and safety manager for New England region of Waste Management, a nationwide trash disposal company with headquarters in Oakbrook, IL. Lifting and pushing heavy trash cans and consistently climbing on and off trucks stresses the lower back and knees, he says. But comp costs came down after the company listened to employees and launched an exercise program.

In 1994, Waste Management implemented a nationwide management and customer service improvement training program, coincidentally titled, 'Workout.' Corporate asked regional managers and employees what they needed to do their jobs better. While other managers asked for help on how to provide better customer service, Reynolds surprised everyone by asking for personal trainers.

"We [New England management] asked hourly workers what they needed to do their jobs better," says Reynolds. "They told us to help them reduce personal injuries."

So New England managers were given the go-ahead by corporate to hire a local physical therapy (PT) group to evaluate interested workers and customize exercise plans for them. So now, more than 750 out of 800 hourly workers at eight sites throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island, twist, turn, and stretch voluntarily before manning regular trash pickup routes.

Reaching for help

Starting off the program in the first quarter of 1997, a physical therapist evaluated 40 workers at the Londonderry, NH, site. Workers here hauled away grass clippings, recyclables, and other types of residential trash up to six days a week. Visiting monthly for half a year, the PT considered the height, weight, and physical activities of workers and then mapped out an exercise plan accordingly. For example, workers who routinely struggle with trash cans performed a lifting exercise.

First the worker would dead lift a 100-pound weight to simulate what he actually does on the street. Then, he picked up a 60-pound weight and paced five feet back and forth with the load for three minutes. Next, he carried the same weight up and down a flight of 12-inch-high steps for two minutes to show flexibility and strength. Once the worker proved himself capable of handling the tasks, the PT would perhaps suggest exercises such as squats in order to maintain the strength needed to do the job. Back exercises, such as dead lifts, could also be used in order to keep those muscles limber.

Recommended exercises were generally suggested for 15-minute periods daily, usually to be done after a day's work, when the muscles are already warmed up, says Reynolds.

If the PT concluded that a worker was not physically up to a job requiring heavy lifting, another less strenuous job within the company, such as driving, could be recommended.

After the six-month pilot piqued the interest of workers, the PT returned quarterly to monitor workers' progress and answer questions. When word of the exercise program spread to other New England sites, more employees wanted to get involved. Now, all workers are offered the exercise option throughout the company.

Healthy results

Now a year and a half later, Waste Management's New England region has seen workers' comp claims and injury rates drop, and stronger workers rebound more quickly from typical physical troubles. In the last six months of 1996, there were 157 physical strain injuries; a year later that number dropped to 130, says Reynolds. A 16-percent reduction, he notes.

And not only have the incidence rates dropped, but Reynolds says the average claim cost is now $2,100 because workers are in better shape. Costs for 'floater' workers who fill in for injured ones have also dropped.

"When you consider that the average claim cost of past injuries was $2,984, we saved nearly $81,000 in a year thanks to exercise," he says.