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The goal of this blog is to provide useful information on every aspect of workplace health - from wellness and injury prevention through to rehabilitation and recovery at work.

Warming Up For Work

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The cost of work-related injuries is staggering and smart companies are constantly exploring ways to reduce the risk of injuries in the workplace. One often overlooked strategy is the warm-up. 

Professional athletes have utilised warm ups as an injury prevention strategy for decades and, while the analogies between workplaces and sporting teams can be overdone, there is little doubt that many workplaces could also benefit from a well-designed warm-up routine. 

Any Job Can Be Physically Demanding  

Most people do not think of their jobs as strenuous. Employees often participate in fitness regimes or recreational activities outside of work that are perceived to be much more physically challenging than the tasks their jobs require of them. However, what is often overlooked is that exposure to recreational exercise is typically in the order for 3-5 hours per week – not the 40-60 hours per week spent at work. 

In many occupations – particularly in sectors such as aged/disability care and construction – employees are required to complete hours of heavy, repetitive twisting and lifting throughout their shifts and yet never think to compare this active job to a sporting activity (for which they would invariably perform a warm-up). Notably, lower back pain and shoulder complaints are ubiquitous in these environments. 

At the other end of the spectrum - in more “white collar” industries such as IT and finance - employees spend entire days sitting at a computer. Rarely is this form of work considered as ‘physically strenuous’, but when one actually analyses the number of keystrokes, small muscle movements, and the time spent maintaining a relatively static posture, it becomes clear that there are actually substantial physical demands (even if they are of a different kind). If you’re not convinced, you need only look at the astonishing number of worker’s compensation claims for neck, upper back and wrist injuries which permeate these workplaces. 

Why Warm-up?  

Workplace injuries are often anecdotally attributed to fatigue, so it is worthwhile to question whether a warm-up is actually valuable in the work environment. Yet studies have noted that - at least in some work settings - injuries often occur early in a shift, rather than towards the end. 

For example, one famous evaluation of nurses found that 63 percent of back injuries happened during the first two hours of an eight hour shift. This suggests that the injuries were not a result of muscular fatigue, but more likely of inadequate preparation. The authors noted that education in lifting technique, combined with a targeted pre-shift warm-up, could very well reduce rates of back injuries in this population and others with similar lifting and twisting demands, such as construction workers, factory assemblers, and farm labourers.  

In sporting literature, there are plenty of examples of tailored warm-ups resulting in a decreased rate of injuries. Good quality occupational studies are far rarer, but it’s reasonable to assume that the results would translate well, especially given the sound theoretical rationale underpinning a warm-up. 

Above: An Actevate consultant tailors a warm up for veterinarians

Designing a Workplace Warm-Up  

One thing that is emphasised again and again in research is that warm-ups must be customised. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, there is strong evidence that poorly designed warm-ups actually hinder physical performance!  

So what goes into the design of a good warm-up? 

An exercise or ergonomics professional tasked with designing an occupational warm-up will take a detailed look at the tasks and movements required of the employee during their shift and prescribe similar patterns with a minimal load and dynamic movements involving the most vulnerable joints. 

For example, an employee who is required to do a great deal of lifting may be prescribed several sets of squats and hip hinges; exercises that drill proper lifting technique and activate the muscles that will be most under load during the shift. Bodyweight lunges and shoulder rolls are other examples of standard exercises which can be useful for the purpose of mobilising the lower and upper body. 

There are no hard and fast rules for designing a warm-up, except that the exercises used in the warm-up should mimic the activity about to be performed and include relevant muscle groups. An allied health professional can help any workplace design a safe and effective warm-up routine for employees. 

The Bottom Line on Warming Up  

The warm-up is a simple, yet vastly under-utilised, injury prevention strategy. While not a panacea, a well-designed warm-up can reasonably be expected to reduce occupational injuries and therefore minimise time spent away from work, increasing the workplace’s overall productivity – a goal that is ultimately at the forefront of every employer's health and wellness program. 

References & Resources:

Shellock, Frank G., and William E. Prentice. "Warming-Up and Stretching for Improved Physical Performance and Prevention of Sports-Related Injuries." Sports Medicine 2.4 (1985): 267-78. 

Soligard, T., G. Myklebust, K. Steffen, I. Holme, H. Silvers, M. Bizzini, A. Junge, J. Dvorak, R. Bahr, and T. E. Andersen. "Comprehensive warm-up programme to prevent injuries in young female footballers: cluster randomised controlled trial." Bmj 337.Dec 09 2 (2008). 

Tiric-Campara, Merita, Ferid Krupic, Mirza Biscevic, Emina Spahic, Kerima Maglajlija, and Izet Masic. "Technological Diseases: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a Mouse Shoulder, Cervical Pain Syndrome." Acta Informatica Medica 22.5 (2014): 333. 

Yassi, A., J. Khokhar, R. Tate, J. Cooper, C. Snow, and S. Vallentype. "The epidemiology of back injuries in nurses at a large Canadian tertiary care hospital: implications for prevention." Occupational Medicine 45.4 (1995): 215-20.

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