Staying Happy, Healthy and Safe in the Workplace

Staying Happy, Healthy and Safe in the Workplace

May 17th is National Employee Health and Fitness Day!  A super fun day where we get to focus on occupational health, safety, and the prevention of injury!  In all seriousness, the prevention of workplace injuries and exposure is no laughing matter, and who better than an Occupational Therapist (OT) to do the deep dive and shed much-needed light on this important topic.  Because, clearly, occupation is in the name of the profession.

It is often assumed that as an OT, my job is to find people jobs.  Me:  “Hi, my name is Kristin, and I’m from Occupational therapy”.  Patient:  “I already have a job” (followed by much mirth and laughter).  In truth, my job, for the bulk of my 30-year career, has been the study of normal movement and symmetry, in order to regain function and re-wire the brain in adults who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury (neuroplasticity baby!).  They do often find jobs afterward, which is nice.

Let’s start with toxic chemicals in the workplace.  Avoid them if you can.  Don’t run near vats of nuclear waste (unless seeking super powers…though this has not been scientifically proven, so, use caution).  Seek assistance with spilled chemicals, don’t spill chemicals in the first place.  Always protect your eyes and maybe wear some gloves.  That’s all I know on that subject, so let’s move on to movement and safety!

I’m going to take a left turn here but stay with me. Hopefully I circle back, but one never knows.  Anyhoo, I had to have abdominal surgery about 5 years ago, and in conferring with my surgeon about when I could safely return to my job duties, my supervisor set the parameters of my job as “lifting 100 lbs with bending and twisting”.  My gynecologist asked me if I worked on the docks.  (Little known fact that gynecologists are considered the comic geniuses of the physician world, and don’t be nosy; it’s none of your business what my surgery was.  Put the pieces together on your own.)  I’m circling back now.  So how does someone who lifts 100 pounds with bending and twisting on the regular stay injury free? Well, I’m happy to say that for 99% of my career, all of my injuries were doing dumb fun stuff outside of work.  The key for me and most of my therapist friends is a strong core, good alignment, and a plan.

A strong core and alignment are crucial…

We are designed for movement.  Our bodies can bend and operate in multiple planes with continuous sequences of motion.  We have been told so often to avoid twisting and bending with weight and movement, but avoiding these movements altogether is a tall task.  Strengthening within these ranges of motion is imperative.  Before assisting any patient I might see with getting out of bed, going from sit to stand, transferring from one surface to another, I’m thinking about protecting myself (and of course, my patient). First order of business prior to any lifting or moving of an object (or person) is engaging my core.  Not just my abdominal muscles (although they are the most popular) but obliques, glutes, lats, and erector spinae.  Get you some strong core, people!  Having a strong core protects your back of course, but also allows you to maintain a good alignment over your joints so that you are not overworking one area of your body to make up for weakness in another.  You cannot sustain normal movement over the abnormal joint alignment.   Over time, this will result in injury and or breakdown.  Knowing where I’m going with said patient and having a plan is also imperative.  Most people aren’t moving people so it should be easier, but thinking two to three steps ahead of where you are going will get you out of a lot of heavy-lifting jams.  You need a strong core, good alignment, and a plan.

Don’t let your desk be your enemy

About four years ago, I transferred out of my strenuous, treating therapist role and into a safe desk job auditing documentation in our acute rehab.  I immediately got injured.  I shat you not.  I could no longer raise my right upper extremity overhead pain-free.  My tennis serve was shot, tears flowed.  What was the culprit, you ask?  Mousing.  Excessive mousing with, you guessed it, poor alignment.  My desk was too high, and my shoulders were not aligned…ding dong alert.  I knew better! Fortunately, I was able to treat myself and unstick the sticky part, but, I had to do some examining of my workspace.  It’s simple things like…your knees need to be at the level of your hips or lower.  When your knees are higher than your hips your pelvis rolls back (posterior rotation of your pelvis), and you get lumbar and thoracic flexion (that slump you achieved as a tot prior to your mom telling you to “sit up straight”). This forces your head forward and if you are looking at a screen, your cervical spine into an extension so you can actually see said screen.  This poor alignment results in neck pain, back pain, everything pain, generalized sadness, and woe.  Same thing goes for shoulders, elbows, and wrists.  Neutral-aligned positioning is imperative.  It’s not brilliant smarty pants stuff, it’s common sense.  We are designed for symmetry and alignment.  We are also designed for movement.  Sitting static for long periods of time, not so much.  I have a high-low desk, which I now remind myself to use, and shift positions every hour or so.  (And fun fact, my mouse actually talks to me now and tells me I need a mousing break.  I always wait just a little bit before I do it, though, because I don’t like to be bossed).

Make a concerted effort

Keeping injury free in the workplace is not an accident; it is intentional.  We all should make sure to look at our work environment, whatever that may be, and think about how we can maintain the well-being of ourselves, and others.  Keep our backs and joints healthy at work so we can enjoy them outside of our work environments.  Strengthen your core, keep good alignment, and take breaks from static positioning; it’s simple solutions that may make a big difference. So, on America’s favorite medical-based holiday, remember to stay safe, and please, don’t let your computer mouse boss you around.

Kristin Wilson, MS OT/L C/NDT, has been an Occupational Therapist at the Sutter Rehabilitation Institute in Roseville, CA, since 2009.


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