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Combating Overuse and Overexertion Injuries

This month’s Tailgate focuses on what we can do to combat overuse and overexertion injuries. As every utility employee knows, our work at times is hard, dirty and dangerous. The demands of our job require much physical work. Whether climbing poles or towers, hand-digging holes or moving material from street to rear property, the machines most used and abused are our bodies. All this wear and tear takes its toll, and eventually the body signals overuse through pain and swelling. The types of injuries that can be inflicted often include back pain and problems with joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and other soft tissue.

Focus Area 1: Awareness
Every utility worker should be thinking about how to extend the warranty on his or her body. If your chosen profession is to work with tools, how long are you planning to be in your career? Twenty-five to 35 years? That’s a long time working a physical job where a lot of damage can occur, unless you purposely think about how to get through each day working smarter, not harder. A focused approach and the building of good habits that limit your exertion can help you avoid injuries over time.

A second function of awareness is your ability to understand your body’s limitations. This includes the need to condition and maintain your body for the tasks you routinely perform. The old mindset of climbing a pole only once a year for pole-top rescue training needs to be challenged; the body is a machine, and exercise and conditioning keep our bodies in top-performing condition.

A third function of awareness is what is referred to as job hardening. Many of us get into the trade through an apprenticeship program, so some of the most labor-intensive work is given to apprentices. Some advice for crew leaders and foremen: Your job is to ensure that your new workers are provided a break-in period during which they condition their bodies without overexertion. The entire crew needs to be aware of this approach, as a new apprentice on the crew will typically attempt to work harder to prove their worth. Unfortunately, a strain injury often occurs. And for the tenured employees, work pacing is needed to get you back up to speed any time you move into a job function that exercises the body in a new way.

Focus Area 2: Proper Body Mechanics and Ergonomics
Much attention has been given to reducing strain injuries over the past 30 years, and much of the same advice offered 30 years ago is still valid today, specifically the use of good physics and body mechanics to reduce the stress on your body. Following are some guidelines:
• Stand close to the load and center yourself over it with your feet shoulder-width apart.
• Tighten your abdominal muscles.
• Keeping your back straight, bend your knees and squat down to the floor.
• Get a good grasp on the load with both hands.
• Keeping the load close to your body, use your leg muscles to stand up, lifting the load off the floor.
• Your back should remain straight throughout lifting, using only the leg muscles to lift the load.
• Lift using a slow, even pace – don’t jerk the load.
• Do not twist your body when moving the load. Instead, take small steps with your feet, turning until you are in the correct position.
• Again, bend at the knees using only your leg muscles and place the load in the appropriate spot.

Focus Area 3: Task Evaluation
For the average person, a good rule of thumb when it comes to handlng material is setting a limit of 50 pounds or less for an individual to carry or move. It’s OK to say “I can’t.” Don’t try to move or lift an object that you can’t handle. Instead of lifting a 75-pound load, break it down into smaller parts. If something isn’t divisible, use a mechanical device like a wheelbarrow or cart, or lift it with a co-worker. If team lifting is used, it must be coordinated. Ideally, workers should be of approximately the same size for team lifting. One individual needs to be responsible for control of the action to ensure proper coordination. If one worker lifts too soon, shifts the load or lowers it improperly, either they or the person working with them may be injured.

The major components of shoveling and digging tasks are shoveling rates, shovel loads, throw height and throw distance. The most efficient shoveling rate is about 18-21 scoops per minute; however, fatigue builds up over a short time at this rate. Therefore, the recommended rate for continuous shoveling tasks is usually considered to be around 15 scoops or less per minute. Tasks involving continuous shoveling at this rate should not be carried on longer than 15 minutes at a time. The shoveling rate will also depend on how easily the shovel can be inserted into the material being moved (e.g., snow, gravel or compacted earth).

For a high rate of shoveling – about 15 scoops per minute – the total weight (weight of a shovel plus a shovel load) should not exceed 10 to 15 pounds. For a lower rate, the load can be increased to a maximum of 25 pounds. In addition, the need for precise placement of the load decreases the amount to be lifted because it takes more time and effort to aim the load at a selected location.

Throw height should not exceed 4 feet. The optimal throw distance is slightly over 3 feet. The load should be reduced if the task requires a longer throw.

By focusing on these three areas – awareness, proper body mechanics and ergonomics, and task evaluation – you will create habits that will successfully get you through every day without injury.

About the Author: John Boyle is vice president of safety and quality for INTREN, an electric, gas and telecommunication construction company based in Union, Ill. Boyle has more than 28 years of experience, and has worked in nuclear and wind power generation and electric and gas distribution.

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