This article originally appeared in Utility Contractor.
According to a study by DEKRA Organizational Safety & Reliability, the Utility sector is at a higher risk for serious injuries and fatalities than other industries – even in recognized high-risk industries like construction, manufacturing, and mining. While high voltage environments and falls from bucket-trucks are major risks to Utility worker safety, most experience risks that are much more common, and less obvious.
These risky tasks are regularly overlooked because they often appear routine. Working at low heights underground, using tools for extended periods of time, and lifting and transferring materials are all tasks that Utility workers perform every day. However, frequently performing these tasks with poor technique can result in a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). This type of injury was found in more than 50% of experienced linemen in the US, with the majority of them suffering from more than one type of accumulative MSD (1).
The good news is that utility workers can protect themselves from MSDs by focusing on how they move their bodies. When team members learn how to move properly, we’ve seen injury rates plummet by over 60%. Compare that to the 26% effectiveness of ergonomics, and it’s clear that employees should be taught how to move on the job.
These 3 tips will help Utility workers establish strong fundamental movements so they can avoid injuries.
3 WAYS TO MOVE STRONGER
#1) Working underground & at low heights
The lower back is a problem area for many Utilities team members that work underground constructing buried pipelines, digging trenches, or performing any task close to the ground. When you’re crouched or bent over for extended periods, it’s easy for the back to round, resulting in a shearing force on the spine - a common cause of nagging back pain.
To counteract this rounding action, try a Hip Hinge:
- Squeeze your abs to create stability through the core
- Begin to bow by hinging at the hips
- Slide your hands down your thighs until they reach your knees
- Maintain your ab squeeze and hip rotation as you work
- Stand up by driving your hips forward and squeezing your glutes
The Hip Hinge utilizes the strong muscles in your legs while keeping the spine in a neutral position and protecting the small muscles in your back. It’s the strongest movement we can make, and is also the foundation for a strong lift. The pictures below show the difference between hinging your hips and rounding your back.
#2) Small, repetitive movements
Repetitive tasks, such as cutting piping, shoveling, or using a torque wrench may not seem dangerous to the common observer, but over time these movements can add up to serious injuries if they’re performed poorly. The key to avoiding a repetitive strain injury (RSI), like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, is in how you position your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
Before picking up that tool, make sure you check these boxes:
- Place your wrists into a neutral, straight position. Cranking them in any direction adds unnecessary stress.
- As you address the work or tool, keep your hands in a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-out” position whenever possible. This helps to keep your shoulder from rolling forward into a weak, injury-causing position.
- To compare, try a “thumbs down” position and see how it feels on your shoulder (Difference pictured below).
Repetitive strain injuries are often hard to identify and treat because they’re the cumulative result of months or years of poor movement. Establishing strong movement habits is step #1 for reversing the trend.
#3) Lifting and carrying materials
Moving and transferring materials is a dangerous game. Overexertion injuries involving lifting, pushing, pulling, cost US businesses $13.1 billion per year. Clearing a staging area for pipeline construction, for example, involves lifting and moving materials of various sizes, shapes, and weights across terrain. This kind of movement is intense and involves the whole body.
The quickest and easiest way to prepare your body for the movement is to BRACE:
- Squeeze your Butt to engage the muscles in your lower body
- Rotate your Hips forward
- Engage your Abs
- Tuck your Chin to align your head over your spin
- Pull your Elbows in, and your shoulders back and down
Once you’ve engaged a strong BRACE, you can relax - but hold that strong posture! Regressing into a weak position as you go to lift or bend will increase your chance of injury. Finally, avoid planting your feet and twisting your spine as you lift and transfer. Instead, take smaller pivot steps so that you can keep the work directly in front of you.
BUILDING A STRONG WORKFORCE
Numerous OSHA regulations, ergonomic tools, and safety gear requirements (like respirators) are in place to ensure that the Utilities working environment is safe. There are no regulatory guidelines, however, in place for leveraging your body to perform both fundamental and highly challenging job tasks. By empowering your workforce to move their bodies in strong positions as they work, we can eliminate the nagging pains that add up to lasting injuries. Utility professionals who are able to avoid RSIs will be on track towards a successful, pain-free career.
Are you establishing a world-class safety culture on your team? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Injury Prevention.
And follow Worklete on Linkedin to stay up-to-date on the latest in injury prevention, safety culture, and operational efficiency.
John Leo Post is the co-founder and VP of product for Worklete, a technology platform that reduces musculoskeletal injuries for shipping and logistics companies by over 50% on average. A renowned movement expert, John is driven by the mission to make quality movement accessible to all and empower humans to live pain-free lives.
- Padmanathan, Vinothini & Joseph, Leonard & Omar, Baharudin & Nawawi, Roslizawati. (2016). Prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders and related occupational causative factors among electricity linemen: A narrative review:. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. 29. 10.13075/ijomeh.1896.00659.