Core Methods for Significantly Preventing Soft-Tissue Injuries

Soft-tissue injuries are prevalent, persistent and pernicious, and result in significant direct costs and pain and lost productivity, as well as hampered workflow.

Soft-tissue injuries are prevalent, persistent and pernicious, and result in significant direct costs and pain and lost productivity, as well as hampered workflow. These injuries are also known as strains/sprains, musculoskeletal disorders, repetitive motion injuries, repetitive strain injuries, cumulative trauma disorders, etc. You can see the impacts of these injuries through lost-time and cost reports, such as the Traveler’s Insurance “Injury Impact Report” and Liberty Mutual’s “Workplace Safety Index.” This unacceptably steady state has continued despite sincere interest, commitment and pledges on the part of safety leaders to reduce these injuries. 

However, with all that said, we’ve seen numerous companies dramatically reduce the incidence of soft-tissue injuries. I’m referring to reports of up to 85 percent of larger organizations that previously thought they’d “tried everything.” What those companies were actually doing was attempting variations on the same theme: Common “solutions” tended to strongly emphasize workplace controls — the aspect of ergonomics that focuses on adjustments and modifications to tools, workstations, environment, etc. to make these safer and reduce cumulative trauma. While a well and good initial step, it’s not enough.

Here’s what has made considerable, substantive improvements: Start by redefining “ergonomics” as “improving the fit between people and their tasks”, rather than merely “redesigning or adapting tools and workstations to fit the work and workers.” This alternate cast goes well beyond word-splitting hairs. 

That’s because an “improving fit” mindset can expand to incorporate three methods: 

1. Fitting tasks “closer” to people by redesigning, modifying and purchasing external tools where possible (the “traditional” approach to ergonomics mentioned above.) While I agree this should be the first method applied, this doesn’t always work. For example, where it’s not cost-effective in an older plant, or where capital budgeting doesn’t allow for this now, or where people are exposed to sources of cumulative trauma in uncontrollable environments (in the field, in the elements, at home or off work) only enlisting this strategy is like trying to help someone significantly lose weight by monitoring and controlling what they eat at work while ignoring what they consume at home.

2. Helping people more effectively adapt their actions to how they work through changing their perception, decisions and a range of actual actions — all of which avert or greatly reduce potential physical tensions from entering their body. This can be provably accomplished through transferring mental and physical skillsets specifically designed to elevate performance while simultaneously tamping down possibly destructive forces on their body or, at very least, from tensions pooling in vulnerable body areas that are more prone to injury. 

3. Combining the methods of one and two above. This is the most preferable, like opening a stubborn jar by simultaneously twisting the lid clockwise and the bottom counter-clockwise.

There’s ample information and countless experts who focus on method one (improving external controls), so here are some proven strategies for expanding to cover methods two and three, which account for internalization, placing individuals in greater control of personal and psychosocial contributors. Together, they lead to greater safety and performance, and help accomplish all manner of tasks with greater ease and control:

• Mentally; help workers employ a simple plan for taking personal control over their own safety, everywhere, that makes sense to them and is easy both to understand and simple to actually apply in practice and with a wide range of tasks. The focus here is on improving awareness and decision-making.

• Mentally; transfer tangible skills for directing their attention to better self-monitor force building within the body. This helps them become internally motivated to make very small, simple yet powerful adjustments to self-protect from injury. Attention control has to include doable practices, not just appealing to “will” or exhorting them to “pay attention” or to “think before you act.”

• Mentally; show how to apply “smarter” use of force, such as employing the right amount in the right place, in the right direction, at the right time to get tasks done most effectively and safely, while minimizing potential fatigue due to exerting no more than the force actually required to easily accomplish tasks.

• Mentally; use the Three Laws of Motion to boost effectiveness and minimize “equal and opposite” forces entering the body.

• Physically; teach how to better use their upper limbs to accentuate strength while rerouting forces down to the legs and away from concentrating forces in the more vulnerable neck and back. This also improves balance through a smarter use of hands for using tools, lifting one- and two-handed, climbing, pushing, pulling, carrying, etc.

• Physically; demonstrate how to enlist the strength of the entire body, rather than trying to “over-muscle” (using too much but less effective force from just the upper body) to gain effective strength and to prevent injury.

• Physically; use the power of small positional changes to augment effectiveness while enhancing personal safety.

• Physically; make use of the power of proximity (how even a few centimeters change in proximity to a task can make a significant difference in control, strength, effectiveness and safety).

These above approaches work surprisingly well, with all kinds of people, in a wide array of companies, in numerous industries and throughout the world, and for longer than three decades. I hope some of this might also help you, your people and your company.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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