Stop Making Weaklings In The Name Of Safety

Ignore this post if you can squat twice your body weight

There’s a trend I’ve noticed in the safety world that is no more based on science than the advice a typical “gym bro” gives a newbie in the gym. I’m sure not everyone reading gets the analogy, so let me break it down. There is so much bunk “science” and misinformation in the world of diet and exercise that ordinary people struggle to find answers when looking to get into better shape. In that world, the answers are just as simple as they are in ours: eat a well-balanced diet of whole food and find an exercise you can do intensely and consistently.

The “trend” I’m speaking of is the army of ergonomics “experts” that have read an article or two about stretching. Armed with that (usually false) information, they go on to educate the masses about how to avoid all soft tissue injuries. This has been going on since people thought wearing a back brace was a sure way to protect yourself from lower back injuries (it’s not).

Prohibition didn’t work in the 20’s…

It’s amazing to me how history repeats itself. Safety is no different. There’s so little innovation in safety management systems that it would be funny if it weren’t so disappointing. In a world where science and technology is advancing faster than we can implement, our strategies remain stagnant. Rather than embrace the risk of manual handling, for instance, the “experts” I mentioned previously would rather just make a rule imposing some arbitrary lifting limit. Some organizations set it at 50 Lbs, some 75, you get my point. The sad thing is that anyone can pull a muscle with no weight, so these rules are ultimately ineffective.

As a side note, I do want to acknowledge the technology I mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are some amazing devices out there which can certainly decrease the risks of manual handling. If your organization has the ability to employ them, you should. Just because an employee can pick up 100 pounds repeatedly throughout a shift, doesn’t mean he/she should. Anything reasonable that can be done to decrease wear and tear on the body is a worthwhile investment.

With that said, however, those devices are supplements. We should be investing just as much (if not more) into teaching our people how to be strong enough to perform their work. I don’t want this to sound like generalizations either, some industries are great at this type of physical conditioning (construction, oil and gas, and the like).

About those weight limits

Here’s the glaring problem with relying on weight limits to prevent injury: it doesn’t address the most important element in the “Ergonomic Triangle” (Position, Force, & Frequency… learn more about that from the awesome folks at Humantech if you’re interested). That most important element is the one that rests squarely with the person performing the manual handling: Position. The posture used to perform a lift.

I’m not going to get too scientific with this post, but consider the following question. Why is it that an athlete can easily lift 400, 500, 600 Lbs or more, but we limit employees in an industrial environment to fractions of that because the “risk” is too high?

Part of the answer to that question is conditioning and training. But most of it comes down to position. An elite lifter understands how their body works on a primal level. They have practiced, failed, adjusted, and learned what their body is capable of. With that knowledge, the athlete can accomplish things that seem impossible.

What do you think would happen if we invested even a little slice of our time into instilling that type of knowledge and training into our employees? If you choose to do that, just do me a favor and read more than one article about the healing antioxidants in chia seeds. Spend some time learning how the body works (or hire someone who already knows), then teach your people how to move within their environment.

This approach is something that will take discipline and a whole bunch of practice. We’re a workforce of stiff, low mobility people. It’s going to take a lot to break our bad habits, but getting stronger really doesn’t have any downsides. On the other hand you could just make some more rules. Maybe if we ban muscle strains they’ll never happen again.

Jokes aside, we owe it to our our people to make them better.