Minimising the risk through exercise

The current definition of Manual Handling by the Victorian Workcover Authority (previously WorkSafe Victoria) describes it as “any activity requiring the use of force exerted by a person to lift, lower, push, pull, carry or otherwise move, hold or restrain any object or person.”  By its very definition, manual handling tasks are usually of a very physical nature.

From a health and client care perspective, manual handling may include tasks such as assisting with transfers, pushing wheelchairs, assisting with personal care, helping someone to ambulate and repositioning a dependent client in bed or in a chair.  All of these tasks that staff perform as part of their day to day duties are physical, and in many ways may be likened to exercise.  With this perspective in mind, just as you would warm up and stretch prior to exercising at the gym, so too, workers should take the time to warm up and stretch prior to work.

If we think about why we warm up and stretch prior to performing exercise, it is with the intention to prepare our body for the upcoming physical activity, to relax and lengthen the muscle tissue and to improve the joints’ range of motion.  This preparation ultimately means that the risk of injury from subsequent exercise should be minimised.  In addition, we cool down and stretch following an exercise program to gradually return our body to its resting state and to prevent soreness in muscles and joints.  It is this same premise that underpins why pause gymnastics are implemented in the workplace.

The concept of pause gymnastics at work is not a new one.  It is, however, one that needs to be re-visited with the specific needs of care staff in mind.  Pause gymnastics can be described as a specific set of exercises used at the beginning of the work day to prepare the muscles and joints of the worker for their work tasks.  It is also used throughout the day, at regular intervals, to relieve fatigue or musculoskeletal discomfort related to those tasks.  It has been shown to be effective in reducing musculoskeletal strain and therefore reducing injury and resultant compensation claims.

The research surrounding pause gymnastics usually focuses on its use in an office environment.  If we look at research conducted outside of an office environment, Holmstrom & Ahlborg (2005) looked at the effect that a morning warm-up exercise program had on musculoskeletal fitness of a group of construction workers.  Their results indicated that if these workers perform warm-up and stretching exercises before starting work, there is potential benefit for their muscle and joint flexibility, thus reducing the likelihood of injury.  Another study looked at the effect that an exercise program aimed at improving back muscle strength had on a group of workers at a geriatric hospital (Gundewall, Liljeqvist & Hansson, 1993).  The investigators found that after 13 months, the training group had increased back muscle strength and an associated reduction in days absent from work because of low back pain compared with the control group.  These studies indicate that for workers with a physical job, warm-up, stretching and strengthening programs are useful in producing positive effects for protection of the workers.

Traditionally, pause gymnastic exercise programs tend to focus on stretching exercises, with very little consideration given to strengthening of appropriate muscle groups.  If muscles are weak, we tend to perform tasks with poor technique in order to compensate for that weakness.  This can lead to injury.  As seen above, research supports the idea of incorporating strengthening exercises into programs for workers to increase the health and safety benefits.  In light of this, best practice recommends that when we look at developing appropriate risk reduction exercise programs for workers who perform manual handling tasks with clients, it is essential that we incorporate warm up, stretching, strengthening and cool down exercises.

It has already been stated that risk reduction exercise programs have the potential benefits of reduced workplace incidents and injuries.  However, if employers promote a healthier, stronger workforce, this may also improve work productivity and staff morale.  This could also possibly lead to improved staff retention rates, saving employers lots of time, effort and money.  Of course, risk reduction exercise programs only form part of a risk management approach in the workplace.  They cannot be used as a stand-alone tactic to prevent work place injuries.  They should be used in conjunction with other risk strategies such as task modification, regular breaks, staff rotation, appropriate workplace set up, availability of equipment and training.  It is also imperative that workers understand that in addition to being fit for the tasks at work, they must also know their limits and respect these.

To discuss pro-active risk reduction exercise programs, contact Secure Moves today.

 

References:

Holmstrom, E. & Ahlborg, B., Morning warming-up exercise –  effects on musculoskeletal fitness in construction workers, Applied Ergonomics, Volume 36, Issue 4, July 2005, pg 513-519

Gundewall, B., Liljeqvist, M. & Hansson, T., Primary prevention of back symptoms and absence from work.  A prospective randomized study among hospital employees, Spine, 1993 Apr;18(5):587-94.

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