Tuning in Safety Reception

Workers can improve their self-monitoring to help prevent strains and sprains.

Have you noted that psychosocial factors have recently been acknowledged as having significant contributors to prevalent strains and sprains? Finally! Such soft-tissue injuries continue to lead the league as all-time champion in lost-time costs, according to Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index (of whatever year you wish to randomly look up.) 

Many noted sources are now going beyond a bias of “just control those physical forces that produce strains and sprains.” Perhaps this change is a matter of “Frustration is the father of invention?” That opening up consideration of the impact of psychosocial factors comes from having “tried everything” but still not being able to significantly reduce soft-tissue injuries? 

I think of psychosocial forces as basically those that are “within” — one, both inside people (perception of trust and being valued, stress responses, social support, default habits, resistance to/openness to change, and two, within the organization (“culture”), including leadership styles, communications, amount and kinds of engagement, level of staffing provided/workload expected, supervisors’ ability, other stressors the organization places on or allows to exist — and much more. 

While forms of psychosocial forces likely affect every relationship — cultural, work, or personal relationship — these have been documented as significant contributors to strains and sprains. For example, in 2021, the official European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) published “Musculoskeletal Disorders: Association With Psychosocial Risk Factors At Work,” which overviewed 53 double-blind studies. It concluded, “The review demonstrated that there is clear evidence that psychosocial risk factors play a causal role in the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace. They do not act in isolation, but their effect combines with (and often exacerbates) the effects of physical risk factors.” 

In the United States, NIOSH agreed: “There is increasing evidence that psychosocial factors related to the job and work environment play a role in the development of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) of the upper extremity and back.” 

While there are complex, multifactorial such contributors — and numerous ways to address these — we’ve repeatedly seen from our work in preventing these soft-tissue (and other related) injuries over longer than 35 years that there’s a tangible “mental” skill that most people can quickly improve that helps harness the psychosocial realm towards prevention, and away from piling up into strains and sprains: tuning up self-monitoring. 

Of course, this isn’t the “silver bullet” that makes all such injuries vanish — no one intervention or skill is. For example, there are important physical skillsets of heightening leverage, bracing, deepening balance, positional and alignment shifts for rerouting forces away from body parts most vulnerable to strains and sprains. But in our decades of experience, we’ve seen how “checking in with yourself” has shown to be a significant help in preventing accumulations of soft-tissue tensions before these mount towards becoming hampering or disabling. Just as expert mechanics and master surgeons need to see a problem, monitoring what’s going on, helps direct their making the most corrective actions. 

Why could self-monitoring make such a powerful difference? 

  • Makes earlier adjustments/modifications possible. In 2021, OSHA stated, “Back disorders can develop gradually as a result of microtrauma brought about by repetitive activity over time. … Because of the slow and progressive onset of this internal injury, the condition is often ignored until the symptoms become acute, often resulting in disabling injury.”

 Noting tension accumulating before it erupts into injury makes it easier to quickly, more safely redirect/reroute forces through switching positions or employing PPE or other simple methods. And for time-efficiently shedding such forces so they don’t build. For a simple example, have you ever ended a phone call and noticed discomfort in one side of your neck and shoulders (i.e., temporary, low-level cumulative trauma)? What if, instead, you took a few seconds to self-monitor during the call and noted tension building? You could then switch to speakerphone, hold the handset in your other hand, prop/brace your elbow when holding it — and more. 

  • Deepening balance. Balance is critical to averting soft-tissue injuries. Operating even a little off-balance exerts extra muscle tension to prevent stumbling or losing control — and can thereby contribute to cumulative trauma. Balance requires complex self-regulation. According to Roger Sperry, MD, a former winner of the Noble Prize for Medicine for his work on brain physiology, “Better than 90 percent of the brain’s activity goes towards just keeping us upright in gravity.” Self-monitoring, even when I’m leaning only a little bit, makes it easier to self-correct, typically in small “invisible to others” ways.
  • “Actual Mindfulness.” It means directing attention to what’s really happening NOW. It’s portable to every activity — and applies to both work and home tasks. It elevates the real power of people becoming their own “Safety Director” in a tangible way, beyond just slogans.
  • Promotes “personal control” (my preferred term for “taking personal responsibility). Self-regulation is a key to personal responsibility. And proprioception is the foundation for making needed personal adjustments to further Safety.

There are many ways to encourage such “self-reception.” We’ve developed training activities that invite people to notice their levels of tension in performing tasks in different ways. And more. I’m NOT referring to contemplation, meditation, scrutiny, intellectual self-examination, or soul-searching. While these might have value in other arenas, they might lead to a worker mentally checking out and being less likely to note building or prevalent risks. What does work is to take note of forces — tension building vs. feeling comfortable, better balanced vs. leaning, holding breath vs. exhaling when exerting force. And more. 

Such proprioception leads to self-convincing Safety. It can change beliefs about what is possible on many levels. Self-discovery is internally engaging and energizing, and we know it can dramatically help reduce personal injuries such as strains and sprains. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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