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The Nuts and Bolts of Reducing Workplace Injury

Written by  Christy Rippel

Everyone wants to stay healthy and reduce injuries, whether at home or on the job. As a nation, we are shifting from a single-minded focus on treating injury and illness towards a system that puts prevention first. This shift towards prevention has been increasingly embraced by companies at the national and local levels.

A focus on prevention in the workplace puts value on tackling problems before they result in costly workers’ compensation claims, workforce losses and reduced quality of life due to injury. If building a program to reduce on-the-job injuries is the goal, private physical therapy groups like Professional Therapies Inc. of Roanoke provide the tools.

Bill Mercer, physical therapist and director of services at Professional Therapies, has been hired by local companies for more than twenty years to root out potential problems. His company provides this service, which is commonly called industrial consulting.

“As physical therapists, we get a really good education on human mechanics — what muscles do what functions,” Mercer explains. “This is a great asset to a business that is trying to be proactive to prevent injuries before they occur.”

Some of what industrial consultants do is common sense, like spotting a worker who is repeatedly holding his elbow at an angle that will eventually cause injury. On the other hand, Mercer explains that some of it is more complicated — like having mathematical formulas that tell the maximum weight that a certain person should be lifting.

Physical therapists must obtain a master’s degree, where they receive highly specialized training in body mechanics and in helping people reduce pain and restore or improve their mobility. They also must pass a national exam and be licensed by the state where they practice. Occupational therapists have similar requirements for licensure. While an overlap does exist between the two professions, occupational therapists are concerned with helping people recover from injury to independently perform all daily tasks for living, including job-related tasks. Professional Therapies of Roanoke has both physical therapists and occupational therapists who work together to design effective workplace programs.

Industrial consulting benefits both manufacturing and desk-bound professions.

When a company seeks out consultation with a physical therapy group, several steps are involved, including meetings between the physical therapy group and the company executives to learn about workplace challenges and any injuries that have been reported in the past. The physical therapists will also talk with the workers and make on-site observations.

Hard numbers on reported injuries might tell part of the story, but Mercer spots potential problems when he gets up close to observe, like he did on the factory floor of one furniture company. During this on-site visit, Mercer watched a man assembling the front panels on a chest of drawers. The man had the drawer pressed into his abdomen for stability, his wrist bent awkwardly while using a power drill to drive the screw into the drawer. Mercer was being shown around by the company nurse, who, when she saw the man with a power tool guiding a screw in the same direction as his body, clutched her mouth in horror. She was focused on the possibility of a bloody injury from a slipped screw. Mercer was just as concerned with the man’s posture.

“His wrist and elbow posture were terrible, putting him at risk of tendonitis — or maybe he tears a rotator cuff,” Mercer says. “When the nurse asked him why he did it that way, he said, ‘That’s the way I was shown, and that’s the way it has always been.’”

In that type of situation, Mercer says, he wouldn’t just advise the man regarding a better way of holding the drill and stabilizing the drawer: He would also take it a step further and suggest that the company invest in a device to hold up the screwdriver, significantly reducing the chance of injury. While these types of investments incur upfront costs, Mercer says that the cost of paying claims is much higher, and retraining and rehiring new workers is often very disruptive.

When they are taught better ways of doing a job, some of the responsibility starts to rest with the workers, as the supervisors aren’t always there to ensure that things are being done in the correct way.

“We always say that the employee has responsibility for taking care of their own body,” states Mercer. He often shows workers specific exercises to combat the stress that repetitive tasks take on the body, such as standing extensions for people who bend down often. (See sidebar for how to do a standing back extension.) But knowing better means that the employee has to do better and not fall back into old habits. “You’ll never get every single person to buy in, but if you can get 40 to 60 percent of the employees to listen, things will change,” Mercer says.

Industrial consulting isn’t just for heavy manufacturing and assembly lines: injuries to the hands, wrists, back and shoulders have skyrocketed for desk-bound employees, in keeping with the number of hours that workers spend glued to their desks and computer keyboards. Research has shown that sitting for too long is detrimental, which has led to the rise of standing desks and treadmill desks, which Mercer likes. The value of a chair that is properly supportive and set to the right height in relation to s keyboard and monitor is often overlooked, as is making sure to keep the wrists and elbows at the proper angle.

“People often don’t put two and two together that their neck is bothering them and nothing in their routine or environment has changed, except they got a new chair. And that does it,” Mercer points out.

Mercer mentions a stock broker that he worked with recently, setting up the man’s office in order to properly address these issues and head off any future problems. Whether you’re holding a pen or a power tool, correct ergonomics is vitally important to long-term health.

Match the right employees with the right positions to minimize injury risk.

Another element of proactive injury prevention is selecting the right candidate to fill a job based on the job’s physical demands and the candidate’s ability to perform relevant tasks. This used to involve just an eyeball assessment, saying, “This person looks strong enough; this one doesn’t.” Physical therapy groups can now help companies use better tools to size up job candidates, however.

Professional Therapies of Roanoke, for example, uses and is a licensed provider for WorkSTEPS, which is a form of functional employment testing. What is functional employment testing? These scientific and objective tests are designed to match a worker’s capabilities with the essential functions of the job. Remember the mathematical formula that Mercer mentioned to determine the maximum weight that a person should be lifting? It comes into play here.

WorkSTEPS Inc. says that companies that begin using WorkSTEPS typically experience a 40 to 50 percent reduction in workers’ compensation claims and related costs from the previous year, with continued reductions thereafter. Simply put, they claim that a company saves 30 dollars for every dollar invested. Other physical therapist groups might use different systems of evaluation, but the goal is still the same — to match the right people with the right jobs so that less people get hurt.

Over his long career, Mercer has seen firsthand how safety efforts on the job are rewarded with a healthier workforce. When the economy was weak, budgets for such programs dried up, and some companies abandoned their efforts. After seeing their employees’ back injuries skyrocket, one such company of 1,600 employees reinstituted a program. “They recognized the value,” says Mercer.

“As physical therapists, we get a really good education on human mechanics — what muscles do what functions. This is a great asset to a business that is trying to be proactive to prevent injuries before they occur,” says Bill Mercer, Director of Services, Professional Therapies of Roanoke.

“We always say that the employee has responsibility for taking care of their own body. You’ll never get every single person to buy in, but if you can get 40 to 60 percent of the employees to listen, things will change,” explains Bill Mercer, Director of Services, Professional Therapies of Roanoke.

“People often don’t put two and two together that their neck is bothering them and nothing in their routine or environment has changed, except they got a new chair. And that does it,” says Bill Mercer, Director of Services, Professional Therapies of Roanoke.

How to do a standing back extension

According to the American Pain Society, up to 70 percent of people will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives, and many will progress to long-term, chronic lower back pain. Standing back extensions are helpful for preventing lower back pain, especially for people who spend a lot of time at a desk or bend over often to do daily tasks. So stand up and get stretching!

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place your hands on the back of your hips.

Keep your knees straight as you gently bend back as far as possible.

Return to the starting position and repeat this six times, trying to extend slightly farther back each time.

 

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