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Stretching and Flexing Toward Safety

Safety programs help keep construction workers safe and healthy

Skanska Dec17

For all construction companies, safety for the workers comes first, and at a time when finding skilled workers is becoming more difficult, any injury has an adverse effect beyond just the health of the worker. Many safety programs have been developed to protect employees from hazards on the job site, but only recently have experts promoted how important it is for workers to be properly stretched out prior to starting each workday.

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders, or WMSDs, are injuries to the muscles, tendons, nerves and joints, which can occur or be aggravated on the job. Commonly called sprains and strains, WMSDs can occur to a person’s back, neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist or leg, and can arise from heavy lifting, awkward postures or repetitive motions. They can occur suddenly from a one-time incident such as a slip, trip or fall, and can develop by doing the same activity over long periods of time.

It is essential for employers to create a safe and healthy environment for its employees, while making sure no one gets hurt on the job site. A stretch and flex program is critical to reduce the risk of injuries and increase productivity.

Safety isn’t something you can turn on or off and hope to be effective. Stretch and flex has to be more than a set of stretches. It has to be that time to gather, share info about what’s happening on-site on a given day, and be a natural extension of a full safety mindset.

Paul Haining, chief environmental, health and safety officer at Skanska

Costs of Injury

In an April 5, 2017 article on safeopedia.com called “Warm-up Programs for Construction Workers,” Felix Dion, corporate manager health and safety at DCM Group, Mount-Royal, Quebec, Canada, notes that few jobs require as much physical labor as those in the construction industry, which comes with an increased risk of injuries. Many of those injuries are musculoskeletal in nature, which can cost employers and employees in medical treatment, time off and training replacements, all of which can result in the loss of several million dollars annually. 

Dion goes on to say that companies have become increasingly aware of the importance of smart, safe lifting techniques and proper body mechanics as ways to mitigate workplace hazards, however, many construction workers are still experiencing musculoskeletal injuries.

“Like professional athletes, construction workers rely on their bodies daily to function on the job,” he writes. “It only makes sense that these workers should take similar precautions to adequately prepare their bodies for physical tasks and to ward off injury. Taking the time to go through well-designed, prescribed movements before launching into daily construction work tasks could result in tangible benefits and reduce potentially high compensation and lost time injury costs. One such program, created by physiotherapists and conducted by an on-site trainer, involves construction workers regularly performing a set of stretches before work, resulting in increased flexibility and back endurance.”

Stretch and flex programs are finding their way into the workplace, Dion adds, and offers the following tips for building a corporate warm-up program:

  • Find a professional. It is important to build your program with the help of a professional trainer, physiotherapist, or coach who understands the work your team is doing. Physiotherapists make their living by understanding how the body works, how muscles and joints move, and how to work through injuries. Working with an experienced professional in these areas will yield the best results for your workers.
  • Customize. If you see a lot of shoulder injuries but not as many knee injuries, then working on the knees is probably not going to yield as much of a payoff than by focusing on the neck, shoulders, and upper back. Make sure your professional trainer understands what your team’s activities look like and what the biggest challenges are.
  • Commit. It’s important to get everybody on board and make this a positive change. Outline the benefits for everyone who participates and encourage them to think of this as a short-term change with a long-term payoff. Explain to them that this new regimen is similar to starting any other exercise program where the first few weeks are the hardest but will eventually become a habit that improves mental and physical health.
  • Monitor results. It’s going to take more than monitoring OSHA 300 Logs for injuries. Techniques may appear to be working in the logs (decrease in injuries) but if your employee satisfaction has decreased then something may need to change. Taking into account both objective and subjective results from your team will allow you to fully understand how your new program is being received and implemented.
  • Be flexible. Know from the onset that your program may need to be tweaked to achieve optimal results. Be willing to shift things to accommodate employee feedback and changes in job duties.
Commonly called sprains and strains, WMSDs can occur to a person’s back, neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist or leg, and can arise from heavy lifting, awkward postures or repetitive motions. They can occur suddenly from a onetime incident such as a slip, trip or fall, and can develop by doing the same activity over long periods of time.
Positive Results

New York City-based Skanska USA established a stretch and flex program in 2003 after one of its offices had been doing it and seeing positive results in terms of incidents and culture. Paul Haining, chief environmental, health and safety (EHS) officer at Skanska, says the daily exercise routine was developed with the help of a professional trainer to benefit construction workers and warm up cold muscles before the day starts. “It also provides a chance for crews to get into a safety-focused mindset before they start the day’s tasks,” he says. “It’s both a physical and mental exercise.”

Skanska’s stretch and flex program is implemented on all project sites and offices as part of the company’s Injury-Free Environment culture. In addition to warming up muscles, Haining says the daily activity helps prevent soft-tissue injuries. “Think about athletes before a game: they’re stretching,” he explains. “Our crews are no different. In fact, in this sense, our workers are viewed as industrial athletes.”

On-site, a foreman, superintendent or member of the field EHS team leads the daily stretch and flex program. “Rotating who leads helps more people on-site feel a sense of ownership in the program,” Haining adds. “The time is also used to share announcements, which promotes team camaraderie. Ultimately, Stretch and Flex is a daily reminder to put safety first.”

Pictured above, Skanska’s stretch and flex warm-up routine, which is in the process of being tweaked to help workers focus on their balance. “Industry-wide, there is a big issue with slips, trips and falls,” Haining explains. “We think by focusing on proprioception—essentially, the body’s ability to sense itself and adjust itself based on conditions—can help reduce injuries from slips, trips and falls. We’ll train crews on the new routine throughout Q4.”

“Safety isn’t something you can turn on  or off and hope to be effective,” Haining says. “Stretch and flex has to be more than a set of stretches. It has to be that time to gather, share info about what’s happening on-site on a given day, and be a natural extension of a full safety mindset. Simply implementing a regimen without promoting the right safety culture will not yield results.”