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How to Prevent Sprains and Strains in the Workplace

Did you know that sprains and strains are the leading injury category in the manufacturing environment? It’s true.

Not only that, but according to workers’ compensation data, strains are the top accident category in manufacturing by claims frequency and severity. The data tells us that sprains and strains are common and costly in industry today. They are costly (and unacceptable) for businesses, they are costly (and painful) for workers and they are costly (and frustrating) for safety professionals.

If this situation rings true at your company, it’s time to make a decision to take proactive steps to take on these common and costly problems.

You’ll be happy to hear that sprains and strains are preventable in every workplace. It’s a simple matter of identifying risk factors and systematically implementing control measures. The hard part is deciding to reduce all risk factors, gaining 100 percent leadership commitment and instituting a process that persists over the course of time.

The Causes of Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains can happen suddenly or develop over the course of days, weeks or months. When a worker is exposed to causative risk factors, they are more likely to develop a sprain or strain. There are two general categories of risk factors: ergonomic (workplace) risk factors and individual risk factors.

Ergonomic risk factors include:

  • Excessive force. Many work tasks require high force loads on the human body. Muscle effort increases in response to high force requirements, increasing associated fatigue which can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
  • Excessive repetition. Many work tasks and cycles are repetitive in nature, and are frequently controlled by hourly or daily production targets and work processes. High task repetition, when combined with other risk factors such as high force and/or awkward postures, can contribute to the formation of MSDs. A job is considered highly repetitive if the cycle time is 30 seconds or less.
  • Awkward posture. Awkward postures place excessive force on joints and overload the muscles and tendons around the effected joint. Joints of the body are most efficient when they operate closest to the mid-range motion of the joint. Risk of MSDs is increased when joints are worked outside of this mid-range repetitively or for sustained periods of time without adequate recovery time.
  • Other environmental factors. Slip, trip and fall hazards increase risk of a sudden, acute soft tissue injury.

Individual risk factors include:

  • Poor work practices. Workers who use poor work practices, body mechanics and lifting techniques are introducing unnecessary risk factors that can contribute to MSDs. These poor practices create unnecessary stress on their bodies that increases fatigue and decreases their body’s ability to properly recover.
  • Poor overall health habits. Workers who smoke, drink excessively, are obese, or exhibit numerous other poor health habits are putting themselves at risk for not only musculoskeletal disorders, but also for other chronic diseases that will shorten their life and health span.
  • Poor rest and recovery. MSDs develop when fatigue overcomes the worker’s recovery system, causing a musculoskeletal imbalance. Workers who do not get adequate rest and recovery put themselves at higher risk.
  • Poor nutrition, fitness and hydration. For a country as developed as the United States, an alarming number of people are malnourished, dehydrated and at such a poor level of physical fitness that climbing one flight of stairs puts many people out of breath. Workers who do not take care of their bodies are putting themselves at a higher risk of developing musculoskeletal and chronic health problems.
  • No recognition of early signs and symptoms. Many MSDs develop over the course of time. At the first signs of excessive fatigue or discomfort, the worker has an opportunity to recognize the early signs and symptoms and proactively use recommended injury prevention tools and principles. Not recognizing early warning signs lends to a reactive approach and it’s only a matter of time until these signs and symptoms develop into a musculoskeletal injury.

A Proactive Approach to Sprains and Strains in the Workplace

Prevention is, of course, better than treatment. Sprains and strains are a painful and unnecessary experience that we want to prevent from happening. To do that, you need a comprehensive prevention process to systematically identify and remove the risk factors present in your workplace and workforce through the use of controls.

There are two primary types of controls: ergonomic controls to reduce or remove ergonomic risk factors and individual controls to reduce or remove individual risk factors.

Ergonomic controls include:

  • Engineering controls that eliminate or reduce awkward postures with ergonomic modifications that seek to maintain joint range of motion to accomplish work tasks within the mid-range of motion positions for vulnerable joints. Proper ergonomic tools should be utilized that allow workers to maintain optimal joint positions.
  • Administrative controls include work practice controls, job rotation and counteractive stretch breaks.

Individual controls include:

  • Education and training. Employees should be trained on all aspects of human performance, including ergonomics, MSD prevention principles and individual health and wellness. Formal classroom training and one-on-one follow up ensures the message is getting through.
  • Early intervention. The early warning signs of future injuries are present in your workforce today. Early intervention is a proactive strategy designed to discover early warning signs of MSDs and prevent the early warning signs from developing into an injury. These one-on-one consultations with individual workers are often the last line of defense between risk factors present and an injury.

A Partnership Between Employers and Employees

The strategy outlined above is a simple one—identify and control all contributing risk factors.

Putting ergonomic controls in place is part of the company’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace for its people. In many cases, individual controls fall under the individual responsibility of the worker to keep his or her body fit for work and use proper work practices.

The most successful companies in preventing sprains and strains in a manufacturing environment have created a culture of safety, health and wellness. This culture is the result of each side of this partnership for prevention (the company and individual workers) taking responsibility for their role.

Companies take responsibility for providing a workplace within the capabilities and limitations of workers through a systematic ergonomics improvement process and by instituting ergonomic design standards for new work tasks and processes.

Workers take responsibility for keeping their bodies fit for the work they have chosen to do and to practice proper work practices and technique.

Mark Middlesworth is the president and owner of Ergonomics Plus, a workplace wellness and ergonomic consulting service based in Sweetser, Ind.

Copyright 2014 © Ergonomics Plus. All rights reserved.​


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