Physical Smarts

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Workplace aches are a pain in the butt.

They frequently hurt in the neck and arms, too. And in the back pocket.

Despite the raft of health and safety codes, the manual handling and the computer screen guidelines, workers’ sprain and strain injuries continue to cost New Zealand businesses millions of dollars a year.

So why is it that one bloke injures his back in the loading bay while his nine workmates are fine?

How come some builders wind up with tennis elbow and others don’t? Why do some meat workers get carpal tunnel syndrome and some computer operators experience neck and shoulders spasms, while the rest are pain free?

And why do workplace injuries continue even after “experts” have come in to fix the problems?

Unfortunately, history tells us traditional training methods don’t work. Demonstrating how a spine operates certainly doesn’t help, nor does having staff complete a computer-based learning module. Showing workers a training video is about as useful as sitting them in front of a rugby match or a video game.

The real lesson in successfully avoiding sprains and strains lies with those uninjured blokes in the loading bay. Or the healthy builders on their worksite, or the staff at their computer stations who never experience pain.

Watch the uninjured person. They move and complete their tasks quite differently from those that suffer pain. And they don’t follow the traditional rules of good posture or the guidelines of safe movement we have all heard again and again.

The uninjured person is what we call ‘physically intelligent’.  Quite simply, these people have an innate ability to listen to their body’s warning signs and make changes to avoid strain and discomfort. They unconsciously say ‘If I keep smacking away with the hammer like this, my elbow is going to get sore’ and change the way they wield the hammer.

The injury-prone worker doesn’t have the ability to read these signs or make the necessary adjustments.

The good news is, physical intelligence can be taught…and learned.

Let’s assume you’re a responsible employer who has read the pamphlets, minimised risks where possible and paid some smarty-pants trainer to show staff how to sit properly at their desks or load a truck without injury. The training programme might enable you to meet legislative requirements or “tick the boxes” but it probably won’t stop your staff getting hurt.

Most workers wind up frustrated and cynical when someone tells them how to perform tasks, knowing the theory will never translate onto the shop floor.

When a health provider tells employees to sit up straight at their work stations, even the office dunce knows they’ll revert to the usual slouch as soon as the “expert” leaves the building.

It seems crazy. We can teach monkeys to jump through hoops, young children to somersault backwards on a narrow beam and show uncoordinated adults how to use chopsticks yet, we can’t seem to train willing adults to move without pain and discomfort.

Actually, we can. Training is not a silver bullet – all sorts of factors contribute to injury - but good training can and does keep workers safer and more healthy. But training only works if it specifically targets physical intelligence. Workers need to be given the skills to figure out themselves which of their movements and habits contribute to strain and discomfort. They need to be guided so they are able to feel which alternatives avoid discomfort and strain in the real world. Only then can workers have the skills to be physically intelligent and avoid injury.

And you need a workplace full of physically intelligent, productive employees.