OPT in Action: The Industrial Athlete – Protecting Workers from Injury
See how Tamara Smith has taken the NASM OPT model and put it into action to protect workers from injuries.
It’s good business for companies to take steps to prevent workplace injuries, and fitness professionals have the expertise to help them in a variety of ways, using assessments, helping employees replace poor movement patterns with efficient ones, and addressing compensations. Working smarter is good for businesses and employees alike: Sprains, strains, slips, falls, eye injuries and other workplace accidents cause millions of Americans to miss work each year, and the effects ripple far beyond each worker. Not only can an injury impact a person’s health and quality of life, it can also affect their family, their wallet, and the productivity and profitability of the business that employs them.1 This is how I found myself sitting in a conference room with the directors of a major supply chain distributor. Here is my story of how I created and implemented a program called the Industrial Athlete Program to address these all-too-common workplace issues.
Assessing the Situation
The supply chain distributor that called this meeting is in the business of distributing anything and everything one would ever need, as in thousands and thousands of products. The day-to-day work presents physical demands in a high-volume, fast-paced environment. This distributor contracted my business–Dreamtree Co., based in Santa Fe Springs, California–to implement a new program I developed called the Industrial Athlete Program (IAP). This IAP is designed to create work hardiness; increase body awareness and mindfulness during the work day; teach proper biomechanics, self-myofascial release, and stretching; and ultimately spark behavioral change among employees—all with the goals of helping them work better, more efficiently and more safely and, hopefully, avoid on-the-job (and off) injuries. So, here we were in this conference room, and I am explaining how and why employees don’t change their lifelong behavioral habits because they attended one Lunch & Learn. With any company or corporation, time and money are concerns not to be trifled with, and it is up to me to convince the board that lasting behavior change is sparked by a transformational experience that a 1-hour lecture cannot provide.
I give the analogy of learning any new skill: How does one become proficient at a new motor skill, such as playing the cello or learning a new sport? Practice. In fact, hours and hours of practice. Specifically, when it comes to helping employees unlearn poor movement patterns, the work can often be even more challenging, as we now need to:
- Explain why it is safer for the human body to move within certain parameters for any given motion.
- Help employees unlearn poor movement patterns via self myofascial release, stretching, and neuromuscular re-education.
- Teach new good, efficient movement patterns and make sure they stick.
After making the argument for my program using the Transtheoretical Model for behavior change2, I was able to convince the board that true change occurs over time, with repetition and positive reinforcement, so the client literally feels the change within their own body, behavioral habits, and life. This was a pivotal moment during the development of the IAP program, as the board knew they needed an outside vendor to help employees reduce their risk of on the job injuries, but they didn’t quite know what that would look like. Additionally, I was working with Ivy League grads who are highly analytical and used to implementing process and systems changes within the organization. This is completely different from implementing behavior change with a private personal-training client–as in a whole other planet different. With individual clients, the personal trainer can assess, create a plan, and begin implementation as soon as the client is ready. In this business setting, it became my job to roll out the IAP in phases, department by department, in a methodical way so that the board, the management team, the supervisors and the employees all knew what to expect moving forward.
Assessing the Workplace
After securing approval to move forward, I proposed that I would learn and perform each job function within the warehouse for a minimum of 1 full working day. My goals were to:
- physically experience the demands of each job
- determine best practices for each job to mitigate joint risk
- create a physical training program to prepare new employees for the physical demands of their particular job
The training program I created required two 90-minute sessions per week and included the following for each participating employee:
- a functional Overhead Squat Assessment (OHSA)
- stretching and self-myofascial release (based on the findings from the OHSA)
- weight/resistance training
- applied ergonomics training (which teaches employees how to perform their job more efficiently and safely)
- basic nutrition education
- suggestions for behavior change
Assessing the Costs
At the inception of the program, the company realized that it would be prohibitive (from a cost and time standpoint) for every employee to participate in this program. So our next step was to figure out how to identify who would benefit most from the program. I recommended that we do strength and flexibility testing for all warehouse employees to identify those individuals who had low scores in strength and flexibility. A separate outside vendor was contacted, and they discovered it would cost roughly $270 per person for a 2-hour assessment, totaling roughly $100,000 in hard costs alone for the entire warehouse with 400+ employees–and that included only the testing. I stated I could perform 2 assessments per hour at a third of that cost, and the company accepted my quote, which was 4 times the work at one-third of the original cost they were quoted.
Assessing the Existing Processes and Practices
This company already had a fantastic reputation for putting their employees first, so they had previously invested resources to ensure their employees had the best ergonomic tools, work stations, and other materials to perform on the job, and yet there were still several improvements to be made. After completing the assessments and training in the first two departments, I discovered the company did not have formally written training manuals that instructed employees how to safely and efficiently handle the material–some of which is large, awkward, bulky and heavy. Additionally, some of the tools the employees were using were not the right “fit” for their body, some of the workstations were not properly configured, portions of the flooring were not outfitted with fatigue mats or carpeting, and some of the motions required to complete tasks had to be re-engineered. This was a great opportunity to advocate for the employees and make operational suggestions for each department, of which 79% have been successfully implemented to date.
Assessing the Employees
When I first began working with the employees, I started in the department with the highest number of reported injuries. At my request, the company set up space for me directly inside the warehouse with a treadmill, a pull-up bar, a 12-inch step-up box and a yoga mat for the testing. This allowed for the employees to be out of the operation for only 45 minutes: 30 minutes for testing, followed by a 15-minute break. During that 30-minute assessment, I utilized the first 10-15 minutes to ask some critical questions about behavioral habits, previous injuries, and current level of perceived stress, and I would perform the overhead squat assessment. Following this, I took each employee through a five-step whole-body standardized strength assessment. At this point in my career I had performed hundreds of assessments, but as I performed them in succession, I could see for the first time the wide variance in postural and movement deviations! I quickly realized that I needed to assign the “poor” movement patterns a point value based on the severity of the movement deviations, from 0-3 with a score of 0 as “not present” and a score of 3 as “severely malfunctioning.”
After a few weeks of testing, I plotted the strength assessments against the postural deviations, factored in behavioral habits and the presence of a previous injury (where applicable), and created an injury risk rating system to determine who was most at risk for injury, and therefore who should be attending the Industrial Athlete Program first. (Good thing I paid attention in my statistics class in college!!)
Assessing the Results
During my first year of running the program for the company, it was decided that only the high- and medium-risk individuals would participate in IAP. At the end of that period, the safety manager performed post-program interviews, and the testimonials were so outstanding the company decided to have all new hires attend the program, regardless of their risk rating!
Over the last 6 years, I have had 285 employees participate in the IAP with a 94.4% completion rate. The results for the individuals who completed the program were outstanding, as I kept statistics on how well everyone improved over the course of the program. I truly commend the company for their forward thinking, their willingness to adopt a powerfully effective employee wellness program, and their dedication to the health of their workforce.
During the development phase of the program, I sought to create a turnkey model that can be duplicated anywhere, for any company that has the need and desire. Using the NASM Optimum Performance TrainingTM (OPT™) model and my previous business experience, I created a fully standardized program, complete with liability waivers, opt-out forms, invoices, spreadsheets and the like. It has been an excellent undertaking and we are in the midst of modifying the program again. I cannot wait to see what is next!
- Insurance Journal. 2016. Top 5 Workers Compensation Claims and Their Causes. Accessed Apr 24, 2017. www.insurancejournal.com.
- McGill, E.A., & Montel, I.N. (Eds.) 2017. Behavior Change Strategies for Client Results: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change) in NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. (5th ed., pp. 653-56). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.