Workers should be trained in team coordination.

Personal injuries are often the last barrier to achieving safety goals. Curbing these injuries presents a challenge, because they are affected by the individual traits and skills of workers. Safety improvement is ultimately about shrugging off older, less functional skills and replacing these with new and improved ones.

Every worker can learn and apply a range of skills to help prevent personal injuries. These skills are divided into two categories — mental and physical. Part one of this article (see JuneISHN) discussed the first four mental skill sets. This article will focus on the last three mental skills, as well as six physical skill sets.

Mental skills

5) Team orientation

Strong safety efforts rely on the ability to do tasks in coordination, such as team lifting, work in sequence, and communicating effectively with others for injury prevention. Workers should be trained in team safety. Leaders best begin by consistently renewing the expectation of team safety.

6) Self-honesty

A worker’s ability to be honest about current strengths and limitations is a precursor to making improvements. If you don’t recognize or acknowledge that current behavior patterns may be ineffective, it is unlikely that you will be motivated to consider and adopt replacement actions.

While self-honesty cannot be directly “taught,” it can be encouraged — by creating a climate of exploration, continued improvement and excitement in learning. Avoid blaming people for what they’ve done in the past. (“What’s the matter with you? Why did you pull that cart when you should have been pushing it?”) Focus instead on reducing a person’s identification with those past behaviors. An overly forceful approach can backfire; workers can lock themselves into a method that they might know is not highly effective. But darned if they’ll give someone pressuring them the satisfaction of admitting it.

7) Stress control

I classify stress control as a mental skill set, although it involves the physical body as well. Stress can contribute to illness in the long term. And studies show that, when under a large degree of stress, people have a greater number and more severe injuries both at work and at home.

There are simple stress control techniques that take little time and get significant results. Start by better understanding the link between our mental thoughts, physical body and emotional feelings. Controlling your body position, balance, and small muscle coordination can have positive effects on your mind and emotions.

Consider “Posture Power”: the shape of your spine sends messages to both you and others about your inner state. For example, when people are depressed, don’t they almost always slump (with their back in a “C” shape)? On the other hand, when someone is anxious, they usually have a rigid, tight posture (back in an “I” shape).

If you feel “down,” make a small change that can get strong results — adjust your back to a just-barely S-shape. Then rub the entire bottoms of your feet against the ground, as if you were scratching an itch on your soles; this will redirect your inner attention to better balance. See if this helps dispel some mental clouds, gives you a boost of energy and leaves you feeling stronger, both in body and mind.

Of course, this quick adjustment won’t make deeper problems go away, but it will help you take more control so you can better deal with them from a base of strength and judgment. Safety stress skills include methods for:
  • Controlling emotions that might become internal distractions. Even when feeling anxious, angry or fearful, most people can learn to overcome these states and focus on critical signals in their environment.
  • Regaining balance, both mental and physical, when mentally upset.
  • Physically relaxing in pressured times, to reduce fatigue and potential cumulative trauma.

Physical skills

1) Transfer forces

Cumulative trauma can occur when force concentrates in a relatively small area of the body — wrists, elbows, neck, small of the back and knees. To prevent cumulative trauma injuries, it is critical that workers learn to spread forces through larger muscle groups by improving their:
  • Positions at work, relative to objects outside of them — tools, parts, machines on which they are working;
  • Alignment, for the least physically stressful use of their fingers, wrist, elbows, shoulders, neck, head, spine, hips, knees and feet.
For example, sitting with one leg forward and the other slightly back can reduce tension buildup in the lower back — and make it easier and safer to stand, when ready, from a sitting position.

2) Heighten balance

Maintaining balance when moving or working helps prevent slips, trips and falls, as well as strains, sprains and hand injuries.
  • Balance is a state of low energy, where a person uses his or her skeletal structure as efficiently as possible to maintain position. In a physically well-balanced individual, lateral and other forces that enter a person are, for the most part, transmitted down, ultimately through the arches of the feet.
  • Forces that might otherwise result in struck-by/struck-against injuries or slips, trips and falls are far more likely to become safely redirected in well-balanced individuals.
  • Experience with hundreds of thousands of people over 20 years has shown me that almost everyone can learn to significantly improve their physical balance in a relatively brief time.

    3) Improve coordination

    Reduce injury risk by improving coordination skills, such as:
    • Hand-eye coordination;
    • Side-to-side coordination (to avoid forces predominantly loading on one side of the body);
    • Hand-foot coordination;
    • Foot-eye coordination.

    4) Maximize personal leverage & strength

    Many people work at cross-purposes with themselves. They might move or lift inefficiently or climb ladders in such a way as to put themselves at greater risk of injury. To maximize personal leverage and strength — thereby reducing risk of many types of injuries — workers can learn to manage such physical skills as:
    • Breathing in a coordinated manner;
    • Using eyes in synchronization with work movements;
    • Applying the principle of proximity to moving objects.

    5) Practical preparation

    Physical warm-ups and mental rehearsals are used by athletes worldwide to improve performance and prevent injures. Similarly, workers can apply methods for physically preparing themselves for their tasks. Such methods should be:
    • Task specific;
    • Able to be done in a relatively short timeframe, so people will be more likely to do them, both at the beginning of the work day and during/after breaks;
    • Done safely, so as not to exacerbate a pre-existing condition or cause new injuries. Warming up safely includes moving slowly (especially at first), coordinating with relaxed breathing, paying full attention, and acting “non-competitively” with internal focus;
    • Be visibly neutral (not look silly to the extent people are embarrassed to do them).

    6) Small adjustments

    One of the prime skills critical to safety is both mental and physical. It entails learning how to learn and learning from experience. Understand and practice methods and skills that require a small amount of effort and give large returns.
    • Make one small change that results in an immediate payback. This might include finding and wearing a comfortable, well-fitting glove to boost hand gripping strength, shifting a base to switch from lifting with one hand to lifting one-handed with the other side, or pushing a heavy cart by first dropping weight rather than leaning into the cart.
    • Make a small change that results in one large improvement over time. For example, making a minimal postural adjustment that results in improved balance, learning to “lead with the eyes” to improve range of motion (and thereby help reduce just-past-end-of-motion strains and sprains), or applying hand grip principles for greater safety on stairs and ladders.
    • Make a change that leads to many improvements over time, such as learning and practicing stress control skills for emotional control; boosting team coordination skills; improving overall balance to heighten safety when crossing uneven, changing or slippery terrain; or thinking ahead to visualize potential outcomes.

    By combining a critical set of mental and physical skills, it is possible to attain dramatic improvements in safety performance.