As a component of a WMSD prevention plan, task-specific pre-shift stretching and warm-up exercises can help acclimate the body for the demands of the active work day ahead.

Workplace Stretching Programs

They are another tool in the musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) prevention toolbox.

With work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) accounting for more than 30 percent¹ of all nonfatal occupational injury and illness cases each year and impacting employers to the tune of $20 billion annually in direct workers' compensation costs,² some organizations are looking for ways to bolster their ergonomic strategies.

While $20 billion in annual costs is a big number, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates the yearly indirect costs associated with WMSDs, such as those associated with hiring and training replacement workers, are up to five times the direct costs.³

These numbers certainly grab your attention, but it might just be the tip of the iceberg when you also consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, by 2020, a quarter of all workers will be 55 or older—and there's the fact that WMSDs generally take years to manifest themselves in an injury. That's a likely recipe for the percentages of WMSD cases to increase in the coming years.

Knowing this, it isn't any wonder that environmental, health and safety (EH&S) professionals are looking for new methods to help prevent WMSDs, and employee stretching and flexibility programs have gained such popularity. Many are seeing value in adding employee stretching programs to help fill the gap between the workers and what can be done ergonomically to protect them.

While relatively new in concept—and additional scientific studies are still needed to quantify their exact impact—when properly developed and managed, these stretching and flexibility programs seem to show merit in supplementing the effectiveness of an existing and robust ergonomics program.

A Supplement, Not a Substitute
Make no mistake, employee stretching programs are not a substitute for a comprehensive workplace ergonomic program. Simply rounding up employees for some random calisthenics isn't going to prevent WMSDs.

Ultimately, WMSD prevention requires a multi-pronged approach to identify and address the causative risk factors. A robust process should include ergonomic assessments, the necessary adjustments of the work environment to fit the employees, employee training on WMSD awareness, the importance of early reporting, and some type of a workplace-relevant stretching or pre-work activity preparation program.

As a component of a WMSD prevention plan, task-specific pre-shift stretching and warm-up exercises can help acclimate the body for the demands of the active workday ahead.

While intuitively it makes sense that stretching and warming up before any type of strenuous physical activity is beneficial (think of the extensive pre-event routines that competitive athletes go through), there is no conclusive scientific evidence that pre-shift stretching programs alone effectively reduce injury risks. In a paper entitled "Do Stretching Programs Prevent Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders," authors Dr. Sang D. Choi and Todd Woletz reviewed the results from several prominent studies on the topic, and they concluded, "While research does support that stretching improves flexibility/range of motion and self-worth, stretching alone might not prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorder and injuries."

In the six years since this summary was published, there have not been additional science-based studies released that quantify the effectiveness of stretching programs in WMSDs prevention.

So Why Bother with Stretching?
While science has not quantified the value of a pre-work stretching component in a WMSD prevention program, some organizations that incorporate stretching into their employees’ workday have reported successful results in improved employee morale and engagement and even reductions in their incident rates. Author Donald Graham, M.S., WSO-CSE, addressed this in an article entitled "Workplace Stretching Programs: Do They Work and Are They Worth The Cost?" He stated, "There also may be a psychological benefit at work in a stretching program. Company managers and workers together in space doing a common activity can create bonding and increase workplace morale. This semi-social grouping or bonding in the workplace creates the perception of caring and support felt by employees from management."

In addition, an EH&S director for a company that added a stretching component to its WMSD prevention process said that the organization eventually experienced a 30 percent reduction in workplace incident rates after stretching was added. The director noted that the company's stretching program was fine-tuned during a year-long pilot, so it took time to see the needle move in the positive direction.

Implementing a Successful Stretching Program
When implementing a stretching program, there are three key elements to consider:

  • Leadership buy-in and support
  • A thoughtfully developed and task-focused stretching program
  • Frontline supervisor acceptance and reinforcement

Leadership buy-in is the most obvious requirement because without at least one champion within the upper echelon of an organization, a stretching program would be doomed from the start. Taking valuable time from the day’s production can be a tough sell for stretching program advocates.

Leadership typically wants to see return-on-investment (ROI) data, and showing ROI on injury prevention is challenging. However, an effective alternative is to show leadership the gaps that exist in your robust ergonomic program and offer a stretching program as a means to help fill those gaps.

Another area to emphasize is the role stretching programs can play in the early identification and intervention of WMSDs. When a team is gathered for the daily pre-shift stretching, it's a great opportunity for an observant supervisor to dig a bit deeper with an employee, should the supervisor notice something amiss. If an employee is struggling with an exercise or appears to be in discomfort, the supervisor can have a quick conversation to find out what's going on. Addressing those early tells of a potential WMSD is crucial to preventing a mild strain from evolving into a permanent and irreversible injury.

With leadership on board, the focus can shift toward creating a sound and task-specific stretching regimen. Since few employers have on-staff expertise in body mechanics and exercise program creation, it’s important to seek input from those who specialize in this area. In addition, there are some legitimate concerns that stretching can cause or exacerbate injuries, which is another important reason to partner with an organization that will bring credentialed resources on site to analyze the tasks being performed and create a stretching program tailored to the needs of your workforce.

The partnerships with consultants who specialize in this are often ongoing. They're brought in initially to do the observations and analysis to get a program started. Then, as new tasks are introduced, they return to ensure the components of the stretching program are keeping pace with the changing landscape of the workplace.

Because each workplace and workforce is unique, there's not a one-size-fits all or "canned" stretching program that employers can simply bolt on. Through task analysis and workforce evaluation, the end result is a customized stretching routine that typically consists of multiple function-specific exercises that require between five to 10 minutes to complete.

As pointed out above, when discussing the value team stretching plays in early injury intervention, the role of the front-line supervisor is crucial to the success of a workplace stretching program. A supervisor is an invaluable conduit between the frontline employees and EH&S leadership within an organization. If supervisors see the value stretching adds to the overall ergonomics program, they can use each stretching session as a way to visually monitor the health and well-being of the team and take action at the first signs of trouble. Conversely, if the front-line supervisor views stretching as a waste of time or the "flavor of the month," the value of their unique perspective is lost and potential WMSD risks go undocumented. Also, employees innately understand where a supervisor's priorities reside, so if the supervisor doesn't take stretching seriously, neither will their employees and, again, the value of the program is compromised.

Where to Go From Here
Employee stretching programs alone will not turn the tide on WMSDs, and more research is certainly needed to quantify the role of these programs in WMSD prevention. With WMSDs currently accounting for nearly a third of all nonfatal workplace injury and illness cases each year, and with that percentage poised to increase based upon the aging demographics of our workforce, piloting a well-thought-out stretching program is a worthwhile investment for organizations looking to fill the gap between what ergonomics can accomplish and their workers.

1. OSHA's Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders in the Workplace,
2. OSHA's Prevention of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders,
3. OSHA's Prevention of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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