Ergonomics done right.®
November 14th, 2012

Fad vs. Fact Webinar Q & A

Thanks to those of you who participated in our Fad vs. Fact webinar yesterday. With over 300 people attending, you can imagine the range of questions we received.

By far the hot topic was stretching programs. Unfortunately, research shows no link between stretching and injury reduction. Simply put, it is popular because it is perceived as an easy/low-cost activity.  But the fact remains that stretching one’s muscles does not impact any of the risk factors for MSD injury (force, frequency, and posture) and therefore cannot reduce the risk of those injuries. At best, stretching may delay the onset of injury (maybe). At worst, stretching may exacerbate an injury.

During the webinar, we discussed how it’s not always easy to discern a truly ‘ergonomic’ product from what might be just marketing copy. Valerie, an attendee, shared this story with us:  “I received a phone call yesterday asking for my recommendation for an “ergonomic heater” for an office.  She was an HES Representative.”

Q: How does the recommendation of “micro breaks” relate to the workplace stretching discussion?

A: Micro-breaks are considered work practice controls and our secondary to engineering controls.   Unfortunately, micro-break do not address MSD risk factors, rather they are a strategy to minimize exposure to the risk factors.  They are best applied in situations with high frequency or long duration static activity, when engineering controls are not feasible.

Similarly, stretching programs do not address the hazard.  They do, however, provide a break from the risk factors, similar to the micro-break.  It turns out that the type of stretch has less impact than the time spent stretching (time away from risk).

Q: If a task is poorly designed, which happens often, where sustained postures are a given, don’t intermittent stretches support changing those postures and rebooting the slowed circulation?

A: Our point is that the tasks should be designed well, as these design mis-matches are the root cause of MSD risk factors. Well-designed tasks and equipment are the only way to sustainably reduce exposure to risk in the workplace.

There is no research indicating that stretching reduces injury. Stretching is of benefit when muscles are tight, which is not always the result of sustained postures.  We have two primary concerns with stretching:

  • An individual experiencing symptoms of an MSD may actually be doing further damage.
  • Stretches in the workplace are quite often done incorrectly to cold muscles, which can cause injury.

We agree that stretching, when practiced properly to warm muscles, does produce overall positive health effects, but it does not reduce ergonomic risk and does not impact injury rate.

Q: Did you know that Gallup-Healthways Oct 17, 2011 poll found that 86% of American workers are overweight, obese, and have one or more chronic health diseases.  Also this same 86% of people had one or more occurrences of pain in back, neck, wrists, knees.

A: This data is interesting, thanks for sharing—it speaks to the importance of wellness programs.

Q: A big problem with so much of the research is looking at things or methods to reduce MSD risks in isolation, instead of integrating the big picture to reduce MSD risks and improve well-being.

A: We agree with your point. There certainly is a case for both reducing risk and improving well-being. We are really trying to educate people on the distinct differences, because ergonomics is our expertise and there are many reputable companies out there that have an expertise in wellness.

Q: In manufacturing environments, when faced with a product labeled “ergonomic,” what three questions should we ask before buying?

It’s a tough question because each product and situation is different, but in general, we would want to know:

  • How did you determine that your product is ergonomic?
  • What percentage of the population is your product designed for?
  • How does your product address awkward postures and/or high forces?

Q: In regards to job rotation, what is the “REBA”, etc.?

RULA – Rapid Upper Limb Assessment and REBA – Rapid Entire Body Assessment are publicly available ergonomic risk assessments/screening tools. The BRIEF™ Survey and BEST™ assessment are quantitative risk assessment and prioritization tools that are proprietary to Humantech.

Q: So when you do an ergo assessment, you don’t recommend suggesting taking stretch breaks to promote movement and getting out of stationary position?

A: Stretching is not necessary to promote movement or change positions.  Getting up to get a glass of water, or talk to co-worker accomplishes this change too.  We should focus on designing a workplace which encourages people to work in neutral positions and develop work habits which prevent MSD injury.

Q: Seems to me you could put the workplace stretching under the same consideration (fact/fad) as job rotation.

A: Not true. When done properly, job rotation reduces the overall exposure to ergonomic risk factors over the course of a shift. It is, however, a secondary control to engineering controls. Unfortunately, stretching does not reduce the exposure to ergonomic risk factors.

Q: Do you believe that workplace stretching is a fad because of a lack of knowledge or appropriate exercise prescription?

A: No. We believe it is a fad because the consensus of published research shows stretching programs do not prevent MSD injury in the workplace.

Many of our consultants have Masters degrees in Kinesiology and Human Kinetics and have extensive educational background in human physiology and biomechanics.  Several have worked as exercise scientists and trainers and have developed stretching protocols for athletes (both Olympic and weekender).

Over our firm’s 30-year history, we have delivered significant and sustainable reductions in MSD rates for our clients by focusing on engineering the workplace, equipment, tools, and products to meet the capabilities of the working population.

Q:  What are the benefits of sit/stand workstations and where are they applicable? Do you recommend for use at office environments?

A: Yes, we frequently recommend sit/stand workstations in the office. Standing workstations alleviate the flexed back postures that are associated with sitting. Sitting is sedentary and slows blood flow. Standing promotes blood flow in the lower extremities and promotes movement.

Q: What about impact gloves? That’s different than vibration. 

A: Impact gloves prevent the stress caused the tissues when they impact a hard surface – like when you use your hand as a hammer to secure components together (think IKEA furniture!).  We recommend them for this application, but not for handling vibration.

Q: What’s your opinion about working 8-hour shifts 7 days a week?

A: We recommend 5-day work weeks, but we understand that sometimes overtime necessitates working longer stretches. However, the literature suggests that companies limit workers to 10 consecutive day or night shifts.  Furthermore, allow 36 to 48 hours off after a work set.