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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

HEALTH MATTERS—Let’s get physically intelligent

Alison Richmond on how we need employees to be more body astute.

Are strain and sprain injuries making you sick?

If so, you’re among a growing number of New Zealand health and safety officers who are sick of expensive training programmes that don’t seem to work. Everyone knows workplace injuries are expensive and undesirable. So are legislative demands for education strategies that don’t make any lasting difference.

Recent history tells us traditional injury prevention training doesn’t work, and injuries continue even after “external experts” have come in to fix the problem. So why continue putting time and valuable resources into something that doesn’t work? After all, one definition of insanity is repeatedly making the same mistake and always expecting a different outcome.

The truth is, training has been given a bad “rap”. Just because training to date hasn’t worked it doesn’t mean training itself is ineffective. But if you want the outcome to be different, you need to change the input.

Consider this: why is it that one bloke injures his back in the loading bay while his nine workmates are fine?

How come some builders wind up with tennis elbow and others don’t? Why do some freezing workers get carpal tunnel syndrome and some computer operators experience neck and shoulders spasms, while the rest are pain free?

Sign readers

It’s not because they’re lucky! The real lesson in successfully avoiding sprains and strains lies with those uninjured blokes in the loading bay or the healthy freezing workers in the slaughter plant.

Watch the uninjured person. They move and complete their tasks quite differently from those that suffer pain. And guess what? They don’t follow the traditional rules of good posture or the guidelines of safe movement we have all heard again and again.

The uninjured person is what we call “physically intelligent”. Quite simply, these people have an innate ability to listen to their body’s warning signs and make changes to avoid strain and discomfort. They unconsciously say “If I am gripping and using my knife like this, my hand and forearm is going to get sore”, and change the way the way they use their knife.

The injury-prone worker doesn’t have the ability to read these signs or unconsciously make the necessary adjustments.

Raising awareness

The good news is, physical intelligence can be taught…and learned. But how do you teach people a new physical skill? It seems crazy. We can teach elephants to do pointless circus tricks, young children to swim, and uncoordinated adults how to use chopsticks yet we are saying we can’t train willing adults to move without pain and discomfort.

The most powerful information in the world is useless if it doesn’t change workers’ behaviour in their day-to-day activities. So we need to ask the right questions in order to get the right answers.

Demonstrating how a spine operates certainly doesn’t help, nor does having staff complete a computer-based learning module. Showing workers a training video or getting an expert to demonstrate safe movement is about as useful as sitting them in front of a rugby match or a video game.

Training is not a silver bullet – all sorts of factors contribute to injury – but good training can and does keep workers safer and more healthy. Workers need to be given the skills to figure out themselves which of their movements and habits contribute to strain and discomfort. They need to be guided so they are able to feel which alternatives avoid discomfort and strain in the real world. Only then can workers have the skills to be physically intelligent and avoid injury.

And you need a workplace full of physically intelligent, productive employees.

A physically intelligent worker will:

  • • 
    Recognise their body’s early warning signs and have options to avoid strain.
  • • 
    Demonstrate a variety of different movement options to adapt to environmental changes and pressures.
  • • 
    Demonstrate positive safety behaviours.
  • • 
    Understand the role of personal responsibility in well-being.
  • • 
    Have the skills to focus on the factors they can control rather than be negative about the things they can’t influence.
  • • 
    Understand the role of exercises and mobility in self care and well being.

ALISON RICHMOND is the director of injury prevention consultancy Provention – www.provention.co.nz

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