Balancing Safety

Being "well-balanced" is not only a good way of living, it's also critical for high-level safety performance.

Balance is an interesting word. On one level, a physical state where your skeletal structure predominantly keeps you upright and your muscles minimally work/tense to "fight" gravity. Have you also noticed how language also associates balance with someone's frame of mind/emotions (balanced vs. unbalanced personality, mentally stable/even-tempered vs. easily swayed, flighty vs. well-grounded, pushover vs. solid as a rock)?

So what does being well-balanced really do for you?

  • Gives you greater control and readiness for the unexpected. This applies to mental as well as physical pressures. The more balanced you are, the more likely you'll be able to respond to and recover from unexpected forces coming from any direction. So you're autopilot "ready", rather than braced, stuck with heels dug in.
  • More relaxed, less tension, less weardown. Balance is a state of lower physical energy (compared to being tense). Just as a balanced tire wears better/longer, personal balance reduces wear and tear on the body, lowering incidents of cumulative trauma soft-tissue injuries. Also, the more balanced you are, the more the shoulders will be "seated" down and relaxed. From my experience, this translates into less likely being startled by unexpected forces (physical or even verbal). Hence, improved control. Further, lowered/"dropped" shoulders typically reduce neck and shoulder tension buildup.
  • More alert. Relaxed shoulders results in deeper breathing. Try this: Raise your shoulders and notice how it's more difficult to inhale deeply into your abdomen. When you're not fully intaking oxygen, the first part of your body affected is your brain (your decision-making, "Safety" organ). So, more balanced = lowered shoulders = deeper breathing = more alert.
  • More usable strength. Balance is inversely proportional to available strength. The more balanced you are, the less you're having to squander extra muscle tension; if someone is 10 percent off balance, he's tapping about 10 percent additional muscle tension to prevent himself from toppling over. This means he has approximately 10 percent less available muscle strength to do whatever he wants (breaking down a nut, lifting, pulling a heavy cart, hitting a ball, etc.).

Ever wonder why people are off balance in the first place?

  • They're "in their heads," "top heavy," barraged by thoughts and emotions, perhaps related to feeling overwhelmed by fears or concerns. Ever notice when people feel "down" or depressed, they often hang their heads -- which immediately unbalances them forward?
  • They habitually carry too much physical tension (poor balance habit patterns? trauma from previous injuries? less than ideal physical structure issues? etc.)
  • They're distracted and so don't recalibrate their balance (due to high workloads or time pressures?). Simple self-monitoring of certain internal cues makes it easy to rebalance, just by taking a few moments during the day.
  • They mistakenly believe they'll save energy by overreaching (from overextending to pick up a light tool to turning on a light switch). They don't realize how small actions, such as merely reaching out empty-handed, can compromise their balance, add extra cumulative tension, and set unbalanced workstyles.
  • They haven't learned how to maintain balance while on the move or when operating in tight spaces. Or they default toward "muscling" work with upper body strength, rather than enlisting full, balanced body power.

Strengthening Workers' Balance
The good news is balance is an easily improved skill, at any age or condition. We've worked with companies worldwide for more than 25 years to strengthen the balance of their workforce. While you can't heighten balance just by reading about it (no more than you can learn to balance on a bicycle by "reading" the Tour de France), there are some simple things you can do to become more stable, moving away from being a pushover or easily uprooted. Look for several opportunities to practice your balance:

1. When walking on wet or muddy surfaces, leaves, ice, or snow, remember to put extra bend in your knees and feel the heels, balls, and under arches of your feet making good contact with the ground. Feel yourself "beginning to sit" as you walk. In addition, 45-degree stepping is effective on ladders, coming off escalators, moving walkways in airports, or crossing wet or slippery ground.

2. Maintain your natural alignment (with your upper body over your lower body; don't lean forward or back) so you can better push and pull carts, etc.

3. Develop your Center Of Balance in every activity you do. Many disciplines (certain martial arts and others) cultivate the Center Of Balance. You can do this by paying attention to what's going on inside you. When walking, carrying, or sitting, adjust your stance and posture so you can feel the weight of your upper body transferring through the center of your hips, then down through the legs.

4. Practice moving slowly, with precise balance (a principle from T'ai Chi Ch'uan).

5. Breathe into and out from your lower abdomen.

Of course, there's much more to being more mentally and physically balanced than this. And for many people, being shown what to do can make a dramatic difference. At the very least, be sure to remind yourself and others that, with the right attention, techniques, and practice, you can live and work with greater balance, control, and Safety.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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