While "Snap, Crackle, Pop" is perhaps an apt greeting from a crispy breakfast cereal, it isn't the sound you welcome from your neck, wrist or spine in the course of the workday. But for many workers, these stresses and strains are a painful part of the job. The number of employees with work-related musculoskeletal disorders ranges from 8 to 13 out of every 100 workers, according to OSHA estimates.

At our New Holland plant in New Holland, Pa., these statistics translate into an average of about $600,000 in workers' compensation costs each year. That's not including the indirect costs associated with training, lower productivity and rework of replacements for the regular workers.

New Holland designs, manufactures and sells agricultural tractors, combine harvesters, hay and forage equipment and industrial equipment. The company employs about 19,000 people in 24 countries and five continents. The New Holland, Pa., facility occupies 64 acres with 640,000 square feet of space; the plant employs roughly 500 line and 100 office workers responsible for producing round balers, square balers, and pull-type forage harvesters.

Baler production workers at our plant are doing something about repetitive motion injuries, and doing it quite well, indeed. A daily stretching program has taken root in nine work centers here, resulting in fewer injuries; happier and more productive employees; and more limber wrists, elbows, backs, and necks.

Tender tendons raise eyebrows

Back in March 1997, Harry Peachey, our painting and spraying team leader, realized that there was a growing problem with repetitive motion injuries. Harry, along with painters Bob Mellinger, Larue Huyett, and Evan Lewis, noticed a spike in the number of strain-related, OSHA-recordable injuries in his department. Investigating further, Peachey discovered that recurring shoulder problems and similar motion-specific injuries were frequently occurring throughout the plant.

Peachey brainstormed with his team, which has nearly 100 years of collective on-the-job experience, and came up with the idea of a stretching program. It was practical and inexpensive. But how would it be put into place?

Because there was no in-house expertise to accurately evaluate painting and spraying work practices and movements, we brought in Lancaster, Pa.-based physical therapist Al Basciano. Basciano, with Hickes, Byers & Basciano, was a logical choice. He worked at the plant while attending college, and he had actually treated some of the plant's workers.

His physical therapy group spent more than 50 hours developing our program. New Holland personnel also put in about 50 hours of development work. After a month-long study, the therapist collaborated with Peachey and his painters to engineer a stretching regimen that would be both cost-effective and time-efficient. Management listened to the plan and gave Peachey and the painters the nod for a 90-day trial period.

Selling the program was not all that difficult. Our management had the vision to see the benefits and was extremely supportive. Past experience proved that employee suggestions for fixing problems were usually good ones. Improvements or changes that come from employee ideas have better initial acceptance and continued compliance. They are also easy to promote. Looking back, the conviction and enthusiasm of our employees helped launch and expand the stretching program.

Branching out

Fifteen employees in the paint and spraying group initially tested the stretching regimen. Now, 120 workers in other departments voluntarily participate.

New Holland allows 10 minutes for each team to limber up prior to the start of their shift each day. Employees start out with basic upper body stretches-neck and shoulder-then move down to the waist, hips, legs and hamstrings. Workers also perform a number of wrist exercises aimed at averting carpal tunnel.

Stretches are held for a minimum of 8-12 seconds. Based on the muscle group being addressed and the time available, three to five repetitions of each exercise are done.

Each team has three leaders who alternate moderating the sessions. There are about 20 stretches in all; about 10 are performed in a stretching session. Each stretch is carefully illustrated in what has been affectionately dubbed, "The Manual," a seven-page document compiled to more accurately diagram how to execute each stretch.

The regimen includes these exercises: neck flexion, upper cervical to low back flexion/extension, neck retraction, levator scapula stretch, upper trapezius stretch, chest and bicep stretch, shoulder shrugs, lower cervical/upper thoracic stretch, wrist flexor stretch, wrist extensor stretch, wrist radial/ulnar deviation, quad and hamstring stretches and standing backward bends.

The overall aim of the program is to include every large muscle group from the neck to the hamstring. Exercises are tailored in each department for the specific job tasks. To add more resistance to the exercise, Basciano suggested that the work groups use two-foot wooden and plastic batons; these devices are currently available to be used by all of the work teams.

Lessons learned

Here are some keys to our success:

  • Start at the bottom and get support at the top.
  • Obtain endorsements from physicians, insurance carriers and an ergonomic focus group.
  • Ensure open and honest communication among the medical department, safety department, employees and management.
  • Have the plant nurse, the "pioneer" groups and the therapist readily accessible.
  • Peachey and his crew-the pioneers of the program-were always on call to field questions about the stretches. This core group also taught other groups how to vary their routine and work new muscle groups.
  • Once the basic routine is mastered, we show the groups how to mix up their regimen to keep the exercises fresh, and we help the groups with new techniques.

The jury is still out on how much our voluntary stretching program has garnered in cost savings, but workers' compensation claims, short-term disability leaves, back strains, neck problems and the number of OSHA-recordable incidents are down significantly.

The benefits are extending to the home front as well. Before our stretching revolution began, it wasn't uncommon to hear about workers going home and eating supper with ice packs on their arms, or with hands supported by pillows for comfort. Larue Huyett's arm was so sore that he couldn't even lift an empty plate off the table. After the first month of stretching, he reported to the medical department that "my arm felt brand new and I now enjoy my time at home pain-free."

So what's next for this cadre of limber line workers? Well, once again they are raising the bar-they have their sights set on replacing the batons with rubber power bands to enhance the benefits of stretching by adding more resistance. And their influence is spreading. Workers at the New Holland plant in Beleville, Pa., have started a pilot program in their machine shop. And a local industrial company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, Inc., has adopted a stretching program similar to New Holland's.

Alberta M. Gable is the occupational health nurse for the New Holland, Pa., manufacturing plant. She has more than 40 years of experience as a Registered Nurse and nine years as an Occupational Health Nurse.

Alfred C. Forsht, P.E., is the safety and environmental engineer for the New Holland, Pa., manufacturing plant. He has 30 years of manufacturing experience with New Holland, and holds BSIE, Masters of Engineering and MBA degrees.