Recently I was asked by one of our clients, “what is your feeling on making stretching and fitness programs part of our safety strategy?”
This is always a difficult question to answer. You don’t want to insult anyone, call their baby ugly, or appear to be the consultant who’s every answer turns into a scope of work that he can help with. But, in this case, the facts are clear:
Stretching does not protect tendons, the primary soft tissue in many, if not most, WMSDs. Stretching can improve flexibility by affecting muscle length, which is presumed to be of some benefit to individuals with tight muscles (but detrimental to those with lengthened muscles).
Stretching exercises do not fit the definition for either engineering controls (modifications to the job to reduce risk) or administrative controls (modifications to management policies to reduce risk exposure), the accepted methods for controlling WMSD hazards.
Numerous studies of scientific research, published in peer reviewed journals, have demonstrated that stretching exercises do not reduce workplace injuries or discomfort. These include (among others):
“Stretching at work for injury prevention: issues, evidence, and recommendations” (Hess, J. and Hecker, S.), Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, Vol. 18 (5) 2003
“Effects of flexibility and stretching on injury risk in army recruits” (Pope R., et al.), Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, 1988
“Can in-plant exercise control musculoskelatal symptoms?” (Silverstein, B., et al.), Journal of Occupational Medicine, December, 1988
Researchers have expressed concern that stretching may be harmful for some people experiencing WMSD symptoms. The article “A Review of physical exercises recommended for VDT operators” (Lee, K., et al.), Applied Ergonomics Vol 23(6), 1992, identified that 90% of common office ergonomics stretching exercises (127 were included in the study) could aggravate pre-existing conditions. 100% of the exercises for the elbow/lower arm and lower back/hip were found to create a potential harm to the user. This was true as well for 93% for the shoulder, 82% for the knee/lower leg, and 72% for the neck.
It really comes down to what I view is a responsibility of a business – to provide workplaces that are safe. This can only be achieved through the design and engineering of the product, process, equipment, and tools. Understanding how to identify, prioritize and design ergonomic risk out of the workplace is certainly a central tactic to achieving significant and sustainable improvements in injury rates and costs, with the added benefit of reducing barriers to quality and productivity at the workstation level.
There is no doubt that a healthier workforce contributes to a more positive workplace as there are numerous (and obvious) physical, mental and social benefits. Companies who support wellness programs are wise, BUT, making a wellness program your central strategy for dealing with injury is akin to being an ice cream shop that only sells toppings.