'The thing that clicked for me was the similarity of training professional football players while in training camp. The professional, whether on the gridiron or on a pole, needs the same focus on development. We had the classroom, the top-notch instructors and the practice field, but not the physical training facility to prepare workers properly for optimum performance.' - Keoki Kamau, Field Safety Advisor
Spring and summer of 2004 were not good for injuries at SDG&E's Skills Training Center. During line assistant and apprentice training there were a number of soft tissue injuries, almost all related to climbing. After an eight-week Climbing & Beginning Secondary School, only three apprentices out of a starting class of 15 remained. Several dropped out due to injuries, and the rest said, "This isn't for me."
Carolyn Alkire, Performance Support Manager, and Keoki Kamau, Field Safety Advisor, gathered instructors together for analysis of the incidents. After a number of hours and numerous conclusions, one thing was clear—even though climbing training had not changed, the target population had and we needed to adjust. One of the issues that seemed to be screaming for attention was the physical readiness of many of the students.
The dream of a strength and conditioning center was a concept that Kamau and Alkire tried to get approved in 2002 when planning for the expansion and remodeling of the training center was taking place. Budget concerns kept the idea a dream only, but soft tissue injuries continued to be an issue. Their thinking was that if they could better physically prepare students for the rigors of linework, then maybe they could reduce the number of injuries and recovery times. Additionally, if working out improves the probability that people make consistent use of the company's subsidized gym membership after they leave the training center, maybe they will reduce the likelihood of more serious physical problems later in their careers.
A DREAM REVISITED
The dream was re-ignited early in 2006 when SDG&E executives listened to a presentation on the on-going efforts of the training center staff to minimize injuries. The team of Alan Marcher, Compliance & Skills Training Manager, Jeanette Escobedo, Equipment Operations Manager, and Alkire and Kamau finally had a chance to move ahead with the concept. In December of that year, the FLEX Center (Fitness & Lifestyle through Education & Exercise) opened to its first class. Today, the facility houses top of the line Life Fitness equipment including 12 cardiovascular machines (3 treadmills, 3 stationary bikes, 2 elliptical trainers, 2 stair climbers, 2 versa climbers); 13 weight training machines for legs, arms and shoulders; and free weights from five to 100 lbs.
Targeted groups for the FLEX Center are laborers (entry-level gas distribution workers), line assistants and apprentice linemen. While they are in training, part of the required curriculum is time in the facility. Each of the classes has a designated time in the gym, along with their instructors who also work out. Four days per week they are in the Center about one hour per day.
Kamau closely monitors each student's progress and designs a personalized workout for each student based on required job tasks to help improve strength, flexibility and endurance. making changes as appropriate. The students also receive a manual he has prepared that covers health, fitness and diet.
An athletic trainer who has worked for the NFL (Redskins and Chargers) for 20 years, Kamau is certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association. He came to SDG&E in 2000 as a Field Safety Advisor. The training center was one of his customers. He and Alkire quickly formed a partnership that sparked many conversations regarding the "industrial athlete." Part of his role at the training center, where he is now a regular part of the staff, is similar to his NFL experiences.
Kamau quickly realized, however, that his coaching regarding SIMS (Safety in Motion—an ergonomic approach to body mechanics) needed adapting to the tasks that a lineman has to perform. To customize a strength and conditioning process, as well as coach proper body mechanics to minimize the opportunity for injury, he needed to learn what they did, so he completed climbing school and became a certified climber as well as learning all other elements of the apprentice program.
Initially, the biggest challenge aside from funding was getting the SDG&E Disability Management/Legal group to understand what this was all about. Their primary questions focused on the issue of "failing" someone if they didn't do well in the "gym," They came to understand that making this a mandatory part of the curriculum was about preparing students to best perform the part of their training that could drop them out of the program, the physical job tasks.
Just as classroom training helps people acquire necessary knowledge, the FLEX Center now prepares them to do the physical aspects of their job. Since December, almost 100 students and staff have been trained. A side benefit has been the ability to aid in the recovery of a student or staff member coming off injury with personalized and task specific protocols.
Today, students and staff at SDG&E are very enthusiastic, support the process and are having fun with it. Kamau and Alkire also report seeing changes physically and mentally in their students, including more questions about diet and improvement in the type of snacks people bring in; less fatigue during climbing and less need to climb as hard in order to attain some level of fitness; plus improved strength in the field. In conclusion, by making this dream come true, ev