Manual materials handling injuries are the single-greatest source of workers’ compensation claims. They account for 30% to 40% of claims overall. The financial and personal costs of lifting injuries are huge. Nobody wants to get hurt at work. And no company wants preventable workers’ comp expenses. Ergonomic exercises can help reduce workplace lifting injuries.
Back injuries alone account for 20% of all workplace injuries or illnesses. And 80% of those injuries occur to the lower back. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there is “a correlation between injury claims for low back pain and physical activities such as lifting, bending, twisting, pushing, pulling, etc.” Improper movements can also injure other parts of the body.
We have learned a lot about ergonomics in recent years. We can now modify an employee’s workspace so they can work without straining their body. We can modify tools and equipment so items are easier to handle. We can also modify the way we move our bodies to protect ourselves from injury. And we can be physically stronger. Ergonomic exercises help improve strength, flexibility and movement.
Moving the wrong way causes pain. Over time, it can lead to injuries that result in workers’ comp claims. When workers experience pain while working, they may consciously or unconsciously change how they work. They’re trying to avoid pain, but they are making things worse.
UCLA Ergonomics says, “If the pattern of poor ergonomics continues unchecked, you may soon develop an overuse injury. Commonly referred to as Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI) or Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), these injuries can become debilitating.” These injuries are also known as Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTDs).
Encourage Employees to Exercise at Work and at Home
Working out at a gym provides the greatest range of weight lifting equipment. But your workers don’t have to join a gym to exercise. Some at-home exercises require using hand weights. Most are based only on body movements. The goal is to become stronger and more limber, not to “bulk up.” Lifting is a complex action. Therefore exercises should address legs, shoulders and abdomen, not just the lower back.
These things all help reduce the risk of workplace lifting injuries.
As an employer, you can ease workers into physically difficult jobs. That gives their bodies time to adjust. You can also protect them from injury by encouraging them to exercise. The five ergonomic exercises listed below are a great place to start. Workers who have had a previous injury should consult their doctor before starting an exercise program. That’s also true if they have current back pain.
These can be done as start-of-shift warm up exercises. In fact, ergonomics experts strongly recommend doing this. Stretches are also ideal for mini-rest breaks. Experts suggest taking a break from any sustained posture every 20 or 30 minutes. Stretches can also be done any time at home. These exercises can include:
If you have been working vigorously, stretch again when your task is completed. This helps your muscles relax so they won’t get stiff or sore.
These exercises work muscles in the chest and upper back. This exercise requires hand weights or dumbbells, but they don’t have to be heavy. You can increase the weight as you get stronger.
Lateral raises work muscles throughout the shoulders and upper back. They also require hand weights.
Push-ups work muscles in the core, chest, arms and shoulders. They can be performed by balancing on the toes and hands. Or they can be performed balancing on the knees and hands. The most important thing is to keep your back straight.
This helps prevent shoulder injuries. Move your arms in big circles. Roll your shoulders. Stretch your arms across your chest. Hold each arm at your side and press down with your shoulder. You can even use elastic resistance bands to make the muscles stronger!
Handouts Can Help
Many people are visual learners. Giving them a list of exercises will be helpful. But giving them illustrations will be even more helpful. They can see how to perform each exercise. They can be confident they are doing it right. Sometimes, performing an exercise the wrong way can do more harm than good.
SAIF has created a handout that explains and shows several “Stretch & Flex Exercises.” This slideshow from the Mayo Clinic shows eight different exercises you can do to strengthen your back. There are step-by-step instructions. There are also photos that illustrate each of the steps.
Learning Proper Ways to Move and Lift
Ergonomic exercises can help strengthen muscles. They can improve posture. That helps reduce risk of injury. Ultimately, though, risk depends on how people perform their job every day. They must learn proper body movements. And they must learn how to safely lift items.
Teach them about the “safety zone.” The higher or lower you lift an object, the greater your risk of injury. The Safety Zone extends from your shoulders to just above your knees. In this range, you are strongest and have the best balance.
The At-risk Zone extends from your eyes to just below your knees. To reduce risk of a muscle strain, experts recommend you:
The Danger Zone is any area above eye level or below your knees. To protect yourself:
If you experience pain – on the job or while exercising – stop. Get treatment before you develop a significant injury. Don’t assume wearing a back belt will keep you from being injured. There is no proof that this is true.
Employees who are in good physical condition are less likely to suffer an on-the-job injury. And if they do, they are more likely to heal faster. Ergonomic exercises are designed to help workers cope with physically stressful or repetitive tasks. They are not the only way to address workers’ comp claims. But they can help reduce lifting injuries.
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