B.Phty, Axis Rehabilitation at Work, Allan.Manuel@axisrehab.com.au.
Despite improvements in technology to account for greater automation, manufacturing and operating machinery still requires an element of manual handling and repetitive movements. It’s no wonder the cost of workplace injuries is estimated to total $60 billion (Safework Australia 2014).
While the big, nasty, traumatic injuries make the headlines – often it’s the smaller sprains and strains from low load or overuse that can dominate injury rates. This is because an injury that has been brewing in the background for a while undergoes physiological changes that take time to improve. There are also secondary effects of pushing through an injury, such as compensating with different muscles that cause the injured muscle to become weak. For example, tennis elbow (tendon overuse strain of the elbow) can take up to a year to heal!
That’s why it’s crucial to listen to your body and pay attention to any niggles from the start!
So what are the early warning signs of an overuse injury?
Pain coming on gradually
Pain disappears when ‘warmed up’
Pain lingers even after work, or when you cool down
Pain first thing in the morning
Loss of strength to injured area
Injured area feels warm
It’s really important to listen to your body and not ignore what it is trying to tell you. Pain, even at low levels can lead to muscle weakness and nerve sensitivity, which can increase difficulty when performing manual tasks, as well as reducing the speed and accuracy of movements required.
What is the best course of action to take once these early signs are spotted?
Take all niggles seriously
Report and log any niggles or strains (no matter how small), to help identify risk factors that may have predisposed the worker to an injury. If a number of strains are occurring during a particular task, a risk assessment may be warranted. Being ‘tough as nails’ and suffering in silence is counterproductive to continual improvement in safety systems. Speak up and get treated early!
Stay fit and healthy outside of work
Eating well and adopting a regular exercise program will make you more resilient to illness, reduce fatigue and ensure you bounce back quicker from periods of high demand. For example, smoking reduces the quality of blood supply to tissues, which can lead to longer recovery times. Regular exercise is a proven ‘poly pill’ for all sorts of physical and mental health issues. To help boost morale and encourage healthy living, some companies run a 12 week health challenge for their staff.
Use feedback and encourage open discussion
Often those at the coalface can provide the best insight into improving work practices and coming up with solutions. Encouraging feedback and participative ergonomics are a fantastic way to improve buy-in from front-line staff.
Get an opinion by an occupational health professional
Sometimes it takes an external consultant with a fresh perspective of the organization to work with your team to identify and assess issues. This may require redesigning equipment or even altering how certain tasks are performed. In conjunction with the operational managers and front-line staff, solutions can be developed that put the worker under less strain while simultaneously improving efficiency.
A strain, while appearing to be something minor, could develop into an injury more significant if not treated early. When multiple strains begin occurring across the organization, it may resemble deeper organizational issues that need to be addressed.