As seasoned safety and health professionals, we are all faced with the challenge of reducing strain and sprain injuries (also referred to as soft tissue, musculoskeletal, overexertion injuries, etc.). In fact, strains and sprains represent the highest frequency of injury and the greatest portion of workers' compensation costs for many companies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, strain and sprain injuries have accounted for over 40% of all the occupational injuries reported each year. And, this has been the case for decades now. With all the progress in the safety and health and ergonomics fields over the years, why do so many companies struggle to make material and sustained reductions in strain and sprain injuries? Looking at the typical company, you will find nearly all have implemented some form of ergonomics program or policy. The typical program may include providing training to employees on ergonomics, body mechanics and safe lifting; using an in-house ergonomist; and / or relying on an insurance company or consultant for ergonomic expertise. Some companies may even perform physical abilities testing on new hires; employ early diagnosis and pre treatment options; or have an onsite occupational nurse or clinic. These steps are important and in some cases necessary. And, many of the companies taking these measures have seen reductions in their injuries. However, the reality is – strains and sprains continue to occur. What is missing?
To answer these questions we must first look at body mechanics. The role body mechanics plays with regard to strain and sprain injuries is well established. How we use our bodies determines how much stress we put on them and where we put that stress. Using your body in ways it was not designed or putting more stress on your body than it can handle over the years leads to cumulative trauma and increases the risk of strain and sprain injuries.
Moreover, because our exposure to cumulative trauma and risk for strain and sprain injuries exists on and off the job, ergonomic efforts that focus on the few tasks identified on the job site as "at risk" may only address a small percentage of total exposure for your employees. The body mechanics we use both on and off the job determine our risk of strain and sprain injuries. If your habit is to bend, twist, reach, etc., that is the technique you use on and off the job.
While sometimes dictated by the job task, we choose how we use our bodies as we go through our day both on and off the job. We develop our habits based on our experiences. Like you, your employees use their bodies and behave in ways they believe are safe and practical. Unfortunately with cumulative trauma, we often do not feel the damage we are doing to ourselves as we do it.
To answer the question regarding how we make material and sustained reductions in strain and sprain injures, we must consider and address our employee's belief system.
Ask yourself: Do most of your employees blame their working behaviors or techniques for their risk of injury or how they feel everyday? Or, do they believe their risk of injury, aches, and pains come with the territory because of the work they do? Ask them and they will tell you. In surveying more than 50,000 employees, the answer is consistently the same. It's the tools, equipment, job tasks, working environment, working hours, the job itself, or aging that cause their aches, pains and injuries. Worse yet, these beliefs have been reinforced over their lifetime by their daily experiences. To get employees to change how they use their bodies you must address their long held beliefs. But, it is not that simple. You can not change your employees' beliefs – only they can.
This is why traditional approaches used to train employees on body mechanics and ergonomics often fail. Research shows that traditional approaches to training can be effective at increasing an employee's knowledge but are not effective at changing their behavior. Post why? Telling and showing employees facts and information will not usually change their long held beliefs.
To get employees to change how they use their bodies you must help them find it within themselves to change. When employees discover for themselves that their behaviors and techniques determine how they feel and their risk for injury then and only then will they open themselves up to the possibility of change. More importantly, when employees can discover the solutions for themselves, they are far more likely to enact long term change.
To accomplish this, start by exploring what your employees believe to be the source of their aches, pains and potential for injury. Incorporate these findings into your overall ergonomics program. Develop approaches in your training designed to address and in some cases challenge these beliefs. The key is to get the employee to see, feel, hear, and discover for themselves that their behaviors dramatically affect how they feel every day and their risk of injury at home and on the job. Then and only then will you see the types of reductions in injuries you are looking to achieve.