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Construction Workers are Occupational Athletes

Why do professional athletes compete? Well, the obvious answer is that they compete to both win and earn a living. But athletes aren’t just found in the professional sports world. The construction industry has its own athletes; they’re known as “working athletes” or “occupational athletes,” people who physically move around to work and earn a living.

Although a successful day for a construction worker may not be an actual win that gets recorded like a professional athlete’s does, it is a win nonetheless. A successful day for an occupational athlete who wants to win on the job includes a couple of things. One of those things is eating nutritiously before, during and after their shift. Years ago, I remember several journeymen linemen approaching an athletic trainer in the workplace to discuss nutrition. They were very interested in learning how to choose the right foods to buy and consume. The trainer agreed to meet them after the end of their shift to walk through the supermarket and show them what to look for on food labels. Those linemen were preparing to win.

Workplace Ergonomics
A well-developed workplace ergonomics program is another thing that helps to ensure occupational athletes have successful days. There are four essential components of such a program. The first is worker education and training, and those must take place before anything else. Athletic trainers will educate workers about musculoskeletal injuries and how to prevent them. Construction work is demanding on the body, so learning how to move safely on the job is key to prevention. Workers will learn how important it is to get close to the work and properly position their bodies. Knowing the causes of soft-tissue injuries and how to avoid them provides the working athlete with the prevention tools needed to help ensure proper body mechanics on the worksite.

Stretches and warmup exercises are the second essential component. These should be demonstrated to workers so they can correctly perform them before the start of work and in the middle of the shift. Workers who do these exercises each day help themselves to be more flexible and less prone to a strain or sprain injury. Dynamic movements before beginning a task prepare the body for activity. These warmups are similar to those done by a professional athlete who is preparing to compete. Workers also can do a few stretches after their initial warmups to further prevent a sprain or strain of a muscle or ligament. In total, stretches and warmups can be accomplished within five minutes. There are additional stretches that can be done daily to strengthen core muscles in order to further prevent sprains and strains.

The third essential component of an ergonomics program is for employers to invite athletic trainers to visit worksites to observe workers, specifically their body positioning and use of tools. Trainers see opportunities to get workers closer to the work and reduce strain on body parts, which decrease the risk of a musculoskeletal injury.

Personal consultations are the fourth and final essential component. These can occur proactively or reactively. When a worker experiences mild musculoskeletal discomfort or injury, an athletic trainer or a similar professional will meet with the worker to determine the severity – this is a reactive consultation. Many of these discomforts and injuries are of low severity. The trainer will provide the worker with instructions to prevent the injury from worsening. Sometimes it may simply take ice and stretches to eliminate the ache. In other cases, the worker may be referred to a physician for further diagnosis. A proactive consultation occurs when a worker has a soft-tissue concern that occurred outside of work. During this consultation, the worker will be provided with proper instructions to follow to avoid further harm.

Everyone Wins
There’s no doubt that workers perform best when they are healthy, and well-developed ergonomic programs are beneficial to all construction workers. When we understand the components of the program and value the expertise of athletic trainers, we all win. Employers may see fewer musculoskeletal injuries, which can increase productivity. Workers can minimize the risk of soft-tissue injuries with education and consultations that will help them at work and at home. Working athletes who can move around without musculoskeletal injury and stay in the game will increase their probability of winning and earning a good living.

About the Author: Richard J. Horan Jr., CSP, CUSP, is a safety director for Blue Bell, Pa.-based H&M Shared Services Inc., a Henkels & McCoy Group company.

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