Bionomics: A Methodology for Teaching Proper Body Management to Prevent Injury

Bionomics: A Methodology for Teaching Proper Body Management to Prevent Injury

Everyday, retailers and industry deal with worker injuries such as back sprains or strains, disk injuries, neck and shoulder injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a host of other musculoskeletal disorders. Recent data indicates that upwards of $60 to $80 billion are spent each year on such injuries. For example, the average cost of a back surgery is $40,000. The Chubb Corporation states it costs $35,000 to $75,000 for a carpal tunnel case. In addition, 50 percent of carpal tunnel surgeries need to be redone within 18 months. The indirect costs are a staggering three to five times the direct costs.

One would think that these staggering figures would cause companies to focus on prevention of injury. Unfortunately, businesses and their risk management providers continue to focus primarily on managing the injury and controlling the costs after the injury occurs. The prevailing thought seems to be “I cannot eliminate injuries, so I will control them.”

An analogy to this approach is this scenario of going on vacation. You pack your car with a jack in case a tire blows out, water in case your radiator leaks, extra oil, food in case you get lost, and off you go. However, you didn’t properly inflate your tires or check the fluid levels or study a map and plan your route before you left to prevent problems on the trip. You may be prepared when a tire goes flat, but isn’t it smarter to minimize the likelihood of losing a tire in the first place?

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Learning by Doing, Not by Watching

For years, companies have made varying attempts at reducing injuries and their resultant costs, with limited or nos uccess. Some have just attributed the injuries to the “cost of doing business.” Others have made ergonomic changes by attempting to engineer the problem away or by adding mechanized assistance. Back belts continue to be relied upon even in light of controversial results with no solid proof of efficacy. Finally, many have instituted training that has proven largely unsuccessful. In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that “back programs” do notwork.

Most training programs implemented by retailers rely on videos, lectures, handouts, or slide presentations.Although the information covered in these types of media is largely accurate and up-to-date, the long-term success and return-on-investment is questionable. Why? It is difficult to learn a true kinetic activity like lifting a box off a pallet or stocking products on a shelf from a sedentary medium such as a video.

Bionomics: A Methodology for Teaching Proper Body Management to Prevent Injury

For example, if you wanted to teach a child how to swim, could you put him in front of a video of Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, have him watch the video, and then put him a pool and expect him to swim? Or, can you teach a teenager how to drive by watching a video and then sending her out in the family sedan?

The point is that learning a physical activity requires one-on-one instruction and physical practice.

Why is it that we can teach a gymnast to do a back flip on a four-inch balance beam and land with perfect posture, yet we have difficulty teaching a receiving clerk how to push a pallet jack or how a cashier should stand at the register without getting hurt?

Learning for Life, Not Just Work

Another issue to consider is the employee’s whole life, not just their work life. A typical employee working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, or 2000 hours per year, spends only about one-quarter of their time at work. The vast majority of time is spent away from work, at home, in recreation, or even on a second job. Therefore, whatever is taught must provide the tools and skills that can be applied throughout life, not just on the job.

I suggest that the value of any training is only as good as it can be applied on a daily basis. If it can not be applied daily, both on and off the job, it will be ineffective in changing behavior.

As a rule, society does not teach us how to use our bodies correctly. Sure, our mothers may have told us to “sit up straight.” But everyday activities, such as carrying book bags, lifting suitcases, pushing baby strollers, or simply washing dishes, are ignored in school, at home, and at work. Our lack of basic knowledge results in innocent stresses,which over time lead to pain and injury. This is the basis for cumulative trauma and most musculoskeletal injuries.

Therefore, the objective of a successful training protocol must be to teach people, for the first time in their lives, how to prevent physical stress and how to relieve accumulated stress that they can apply during all daily activities. The question remains, however, how do you disseminate this information to your employees so they “get it” and it changes behavior?

A Nine-Step Training Methodology

Based on the experience of teaching employees in various retail, industrial, and corporate environments, a specific methodology can be suggested to positively effect employee behavior. To better understand this approach, it maybe helpful to contrast the term bionomics with ergonomics. Ergonomics focuses on how the environment affects the individual, while bionomics focuses on the proper management of the human body.

By focusing on how employees manage their bodies within the context of their actual job activities using a see it,hear it, do it training approach, you have the best chance to positively change employees behavior and reduce injuries.

Pre-assessment. The first step necessary, whether training is conducted by internal or external trainers, is observing employees at work, interviewing them, and learning how they do their jobs. This step provides invaluable information and also allows the employees to participate in the development of the program.

Surveys can also be given to each employee to solicit information about any pain or discomfort they may be experiencing as well as provide baseline knowledge of body mechanics that can be used as objective data for later comparison.

Design and Customization. Based on the pre-assessment, a training workshop can be designed and customized for each job description, such as receivers, order selectors, cashiers, baggers, office workers, transportation, or whatever fits your specific situation.

Introduction. Before beginning, you should use the “WIIFM” principle (What’s In It For Me) to obtain employee buy-in. In reality, most employees are antagonistic toward safety training, thinking that they already know everything or that the company just wants to take care of itself. Ultimately, you want your employees to take personal responsibility for their own wellness and safety off the job as well as on it.

Theory. Here is where traditional training media can be used. Industry specific videos, whether it’s on material handling or lifting, can introduce employees to basic anatomy, common injuries, as well as proper body mechanics.

Stretching. Just like athletes before competition, employees should be taught how to perform a non-strenuous vocational stretching routine before each shift as well as throughout the day. Stretching exercises both prepare the body for work and relieve accumulated physical stress.

Obstacle Course. This part of the program, which we term the obstacle course, is the main focus of the training.This is where old, at-risk habits are broken and replaced with safer, more efficient ones. Employees should practice under trained supervision, rotating through multiple stations where they practice specific job tasks germane to their own departments. For example, receiving and stock clerks would likely be in the same workshop where they practice breaking down “the load” as well as other tasks. Both hard goods and soft goods are incorporated as props to practice with. Front end employees would be in their own workshop as their job tasks are different from other departments. Again, a different set of props specific to these employees would be incorporated.

Employees learn not only how to correctly perform tasks, but they also observe their coworkers performance. A team “no-offense” attitude should be fostered so that employees will watch out for each other once back at work. For office workers, the obstacle course might use mock computer stations where they learn sitting principles and the whys and hows to set up a workstation. In effect, they can then go out and set up any workstation in the world and adapt it for their body.

Questions and Answers. Employees should be given ample opportunity to ask questions and clarify issues. In addition, there are times when one employee may have developed a safe and correct biomechanical way to perform a specific job task. This provides an opportunity to share that technique with the other employees.

Quality Control. Participants should always be encouraged to fill out course critiques, evaluating both instructors and content. This gives the training team input to make any necessary modifications for future workshops.

Commitment. Like any good training or educational program, employees should be asked to communicate what they have learned and to commit to using the techniques immediately in their lives.<

Ensuring Long-Term Results

Bionomics: A Methodology for Teaching Proper Body Management to Prevent Injury

Once the initial training is completed, steps can be taken to ensure long-term results. The first step is to implementtraining to a critical mass of your employees. That is to say, that training nearly everyone possible will have anenormous impact on the overall safety culture of the company and ultimately the bottom line.

Second, there needs to be reinforcement. This can be done by using advanced training for supervisors or team leaders, who are then tasked with keeping the program alive on a day-to-day basis. Another method for reinforcement is to having your trainer or LP staff perform onsite support and compliance visits. By doing walk-throughs, observations, and coaching, an ongoing presence is maintained and adherence to techniques taught in the workshop can be encouraged and supported.

Third, annual refresher courses can help employees review basic techniques, reestablish the need for employees to the use proper technique and stretching, and boost the overall safety culture of your organization.

Evaluating the Training Leader

As in any educational setting, the better the messenger, the better the message is received. Whether you lead the workshops yourself, use internal resources, or contract with an outside expert, consider the following criteria when choosing the leader.

First and foremost, make sure they are knowledgeable in the primary subject matter, meaning anatomy,biomechanics, stretching, posture, and the various aspects of bionomics.

Bionomics: A Methodology for Teaching Proper Body Management to Prevent InjuryayJun02-51.-2jpgSecond, they must be credible. Too often, safety managers or even operations managers are put in the position of being jacks-of-all-trades, but a master of none. One week they are talking about hazardous materials, the next back injuries, and still the next another issue. To employees, this situation can cause them to question the credibility and accuracy of the information communicated.

Third, they should possess excellent communication skills. Many professionals are experts in their field, but are poor communicators. Even the greatest message communicated poorly will get lost in the translation.


Fourth, the messenger must be interested in the welfare of the group and have the time and dedication to implement training properly. In today’s workplace, everyone is extremely busy and most likely wearing multiple hats. Make sure that safety is the primary responsibility of the individual you choose for a leader.

The Right Methodology Produces Results

Companies who have used this training methodology have produced positive results. For example, Toys “R” Us reduced injuries at one distribution center by 75 percent. United Airlines reduced musculoskeletal injuries by an impressive 63 percent after training 20,000 flight attendants in 20 cities worldwide.

In every company, there are challenges to getting employees to work safely, efficiently, and with confidence. The truth is most employees do not want to get hurt. It is devastating to them and their families, as well as their employers. They simply have not been taught how to use their bodies correctly so that they can minimize the daily innocent stresses and preserve their quality of life not only today and this weekend, but for years of productivity to come.

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