Real Answers: Getting Unstuck from Persistent Soft-Tissue Injuries

Some problems just seem to nag on, like something clinging to your hand you just can’t seem to vigorously shake or brush off, or worse, a splinter embedded in a sensitive spot that hurts but in too deep to dig out yourself. That’s how some soft-tissue injuries just seem to be, but worse—tenacious, costly, painful. For many companies, such strains and sprains are prevalent and affect a broad swath of their people, not just among those doing highly physical jobs. 

As you might expect, this has garnered a lot of attention in the world of organizational safety, and frustration. I’ve encountered some safety leaders who sincerely believe they’ve “tried everything” to press the undo key on these injuries, but with little results. Just review any statistics of lost-time incidence or costs. Soft-tissue injuries lead the league by a big margin—consistently, going way back into the past. Not to mention precious eroding productivity from difficult-to-replace workers either being out for the count or those still working but hampered to some degree.  

Wise leaders understand that despite the many hours and resources expended, it’s impossible to have “tried everything.” Past trials are often just variations on basically the same theme (like those songs with very similar melodies where, “Haven’t I heard this before—or something just like it?”). Indeed, some of these interventions have worked to a point—yet soft-tissue injuries stubbornly persist at too-high rates. 

The hopeful news is that many companies are making real and sizable improvements in soft-tissue safety by changing it up, not doing the same things they’ve done over again in the past. (Consider one of my favorite Will Rogers quotes, “The secret of success is simple. If you’re in a hole, quit digging.” Notice he didn’t suggest, “Stay the course” or “Do the same things, just harder” or “Get a bigger shovel.”) 

If yours is like many other companies concerned about strains and sprains, consider two critical strategies from our experience with companies achieving over 85 percent reported drops in soft-tissue injuries:  

*Reduce external forces, then promote internal control. Because soft-tissue injuries typically result from concentration of forces wearing or breaking down a (relatively small) body part, naturally, the first step is to design out whatever physical risks you cost-effectively can. You know the logical standards: reduce distance from loads, lower weights that are moves, make whatever you can adjustable for different statured workers, suspend tools rather than expect people to be biological clamps, more. But that’s just a first and definitely not the only step. Realistically, it’s impossible, as many have come to ruefully realize, to get rid of all (or even most?) such risk factors in the real world. Like when it’s not cost-effective to shut down/replace old equipment, control environments with remote workers, people in the field exposed to the elements, those with at-home cumulative trauma risks, etc.  

So indeed, reduce those potential wear-down forces that you can (through design, equipment replacement, changed protocols, more.) Then put people more in control of their own soft-tissue safety with effective mindsets, attention-control skills and enhanced physical methods for better accomplishing every-workday and every-home-day tasks and activities. (Specifically, by methods that re-route forces away from concentrating in relatively small areas that might otherwise lead to wear down.) 

This approach requires generating enthusiasm and energy, encouraging people to embrace taking personal control of their own safety, self-reinforcing practical methods and thinking beyond injury prevention towards maximizing performance (even in their favorite off-work hobbies, sports, activities.) And we well know from over three decades of experience worldwide, this is practical and highly do-able. 

*Saturate your culture for greater soft-tissue safety. To actually impact cumulative trauma, you’ve got to prevent buildup. Repeated (but not boring) change in very small actions is needed to then redirect longstanding patterns of “avoid-the-one-big-exposure”/acute mindsets and necessary modifications to physical movements. This has to be founded within a company’s culture. 

Cultural upgrade intervention requires changes of belief AND actions—that aren’t pounded into people but that they want to embrace. 

This doesn’t mean going overboard and “dropping everything else,” just making sure that injuries that often develop as “straw that broke the camel’s back” cumulative trauma buildup are not, ironically, treated with acute, once-in-a-while mentions/reminders/training. The latter (often conveyed through once-in-a-while “training” or “education”) are never enough to actually reduce these injuries (like taking one golf lesson from a noted pro and expecting to become an expert putter.) 

How can you implement such cultural change? Activate an in-place, ongoing, surround-sound strategy. Along with attention to practical ergonomic modifications (which can be as personal as shock-absorbing shoe inserts), educate everyone that small “nags” can lead to big problems in soft-tissue safety but that, conversely, very small and easily applied protective actions and decisions can better keep them active, relaxed and more effective.  

Also, be sure to enlist this “recipe” of three high-quality ingredients, well-mixed: 1. Initially providing people aforementioned improved mental and physical methods/techniques for preventing injuries. 2. Follow up communicating with/coaching them in a personal manner, often one-on-one and even informally to reduce objections, answer questions/concerns and remind them to apply what they’ve been shown. 3. Reinforcing changes in beliefs, decision-making and safer actions on an organization level, so these become more intertwined into a company’s culture.  

We’ve found successful saturation best entails seeding a critical mass of designated trained individuals throughout the company (we recommend at least one to two percent of the workforce), some of whom initially train their peers in soft-tissue safety methods and others who specialize in often “informal” reinforcing and “coaching.” 

Want to transform, energize and exemplify your organization’s safety? Achieving beyond-minimal results necessitates beyond-same-old approaches. Are there expenditures for doing this—planning? Release time? Training costs? No question. But there are also well-documented prices to pay for not doing so from ongoing hits of claims, lost productivity from reduction in workforce and capability, as well as erosion of culture. Or from frittering away resources—and credibility—from ineffective-but-costly “solutions.” 

The multiple and significant fruits of stellar soft-tissue safety performance are yours for the harvesting, grown by the right initial preparation, planting and ongoing attention to your safety culture. 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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