You might only think about fitness to work and movement training when a worker is recovering from an injury. But by starting with fitness to work testing and including movement training as part of your complete workplace ergonomics plan you can reduce the number of on-the-job musculoskeletal injuries. The result is a safer, more productive workplace whether the setting is in an office, on the manufacturing floor, or in a service job.

A strong workplace ergonomics plan benefits and involves everyone

The most obvious benefit of a strong workplace ergonomics plan is avoiding injuries and the associated Workers' Compensation or disability costs. By having a strong ergonomics plan and practices, which include fitness to work evaluations and movement training, you’re also investing in safety and productivity. (Learn more in "8 Step To Reduce Workers' Compensation Costs".)

A strong commitment to workplace safety has been shown to improve worker productivity, resulting in higher quality work results.

It is important to involve everyone in making sure that they understand the tasks required for each job and how to complete them safely. This can include understanding how to safely lift a heavy load, move items about, complete work tasks without repetitive stress, and other similar tasks. It’s also important that everyone understands and commits to fulfilling their role in keeping the workplace injury-free.

Fitness to work testing provides a solid first step

Making sure that workers have the ability to safely complete their work tasks is the first step in a solid workplace ergonomics plan. After identifying the capabilities and weaknesses in the workforce employers can adjust their ergonomics plan and movement training to address that specific workplace setting’s particular needs.

Movement training requires planning

Effective movement training is based on sound occupational health and physical therapy principles and must be customized to the specific work environment. Poor techniques and faulty training could do more harm than not training. In addition, workers’ progress needs to be clearly documented and monitored. For these reasons, any movement training program should be developed and delivered by a professional. Some companies have their in-house occupational health professional develop and deliver their movement training while others choose to contract with an outside professional. Regardless of whether training is developed in-house or contracted out, there must be a coherent plan for the program that involves personnel from many levels and includes accountability measures.

Training begins with awareness

Both workers and managers need to know the causes, signs, and symptoms of musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. By training everyone, not just those in highly physical jobs, you are creating a sustainable culture of work safety and improving the company's wellness culture.

Musculoskeletal injuries and disorders are caused by stressing and straining muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, or bones. This stress and strain can come from repeating the same motion over and over again, moving in an awkward or unnatural manner, lifting or pushing heavy objects, or subjecting the body to ongoing vibration. When left untreated, these injuries can become debilitating, ultimately disrupting productivity and costing money. (Learn more in "Do Workplace Wellness Programs Save Employers Money?")

By knowing what to look for, risky situations can be corrected before injury occurs. After all, what starts out as a little pain or small strain, when left unaddressed, can lead to serious injury or even disability.

Risks must be identified

Once you understand what causes musculoskeletal injuries and disorders, you can identify risky situations and practices in the workplace. Workstations should be evaluated and workers should be observed carrying out their tasks.

Some of the more common risky situations and practices include:

  • Completing tasks while in an awkward position
  • Lifting or moving heavy objects
  • Repeating the same motion over and over again
  • Holding the same static physical position for a long time without a break
  • Subjecting a body part or the whole body to vibrations for long periods of time
  • Letting a machine drive the pace of work

Consider which of these risks exist in your workplace. How to minimize the risks for musculoskeletal injuries you find depends on the particulars of your workplace.

Workstation setup must be based on sound ergonomic principles

Whether we’re talking about working at a computer workstation, on an assembly line, or at a checkout counter, you must make sure the workstation is setup for proper ergonomics. (Learn more in "The Importance of Setting Up Ergonomic Workstations for Office Workers".)

This may require having specialized furniture, like a fully adjustable chair, or equipment, like a motorized lift for heavy objects. It may require mapping out exactly how the furniture or equipment should be placed in the workstation. The particulars will depend on your specific workplace.(Learn more in "6 Ergonomic Aids for Employees Who Work in a Standing Position".)

Whatever the workstation setup is, it must fit the work to be done and the person doing the work. This can mean the station must adapt to people with different heights or with different reaches. A workstation setup for a six-foot tall person, for example, won’t be safe for a person who is five-foot four.

How workers complete tasks must be evaluated and, when necessary, corrected

Our bodies are designed to move in a certain manner. Even though a movement like twisting at the waist may feel natural, over time twisting at the waist while carrying an object causes undue strain that can result in a back injury and cause problems like lower back pain. (Learn more in "A Look at Lower Back Pain in the Workplace.") For this reason it is important to train workers on how to complete tasks in a manner that eliminates strain and minimizes the chance for injury.

Simple adjustments can dramatically reduce the risk of injury such as bending the knees instead of the back when lifting heavy objects, moving your feet to turn to the side and not just twisting at the waist, or keeping joints in a neutral position when using tools. These are all good practices that may not come naturally. By providing movement training employers can help make sure that workers know how to complete their tasks safely and avoid injury.

Daily movement habits and practices reduce risk

Additionally, there are daily habits and practices away from the work itself that can support a safe, injury-free workplace. Taking the time to stretch throughout the day keep the body limber. Taking regular breaks give the body a chance to rest. A worker may not realize how important these are until that ache in their wrist or back just won’t go away. (Learn more in "Breaks During Work Are Necessary for Employee Well-Being and Work Performance.")

By starting with a fitness to work testing program and including movement training in your workplace ergonomics program you have the opportunity to eliminate risky behaviors and practices before they cause expensive injuries and disability. Additionally, a strong commitment to workplace safety will likely improve worker engagement and productivity.