Fitness professionals strive to help clients enhance their health and reduce the risk of injury; however, they may be missing a large piece of the training puzzle if they aren’t addressing a client’s work-related training needs. While most clients may not be professional athletes, they are in fact “occupational athletes,” meaning they spend 40 or more hours a week on the job. Depending on where they work, they may encounter heavy lifting, awkward positions and repetitive tasks, all of which can lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) such as carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff disorders and back injuries. These WMSDs don’t just serve as obstacles to training; they negatively affect quality of life.

In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported approximately 388,000 cases of WMSDs that required days off work, a figure that represented 34% of all lost workdays (BLS 2013). It is estimated that employers spend as much as $20 billion per year on workers’ compensation claims directly related to WMSDs and up to five times that amount ($100 billion per year) on indirect costs associated with hiring and training replacement workers. While WMSDs are a significant and costly health issue, the good news is that most of them are preventable. Fitness professionals can help, and this article explains how.

What Is a Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorder?

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a WMSD as an injury or disorder of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage or spinal disks. WMSDs do not include disorders caused by slips, trips, falls, motor vehicle accidents or other similar accidents (CDC 2013). Surprisingly the occupation with the highest rate is the healthcare industry (OSHA 2012). Healthcare workers have very physically demanding jobs. Patients do not have handles, their weight is not evenly distributed, and they are not always cooperative.

In the United States, back injuries are among the most prevalent and costly WMSDs, representing 41% of all cases (BLS 2013). Therefore, it is not surprising that 25% of all workers’ compensation claims involve back injuries and strains (OSHA 2009). The vast majority of these complaints affect the lower back and are caused by manual handling (lifting, carrying, holding, lowering and placing). Poor posture and chronic sitting are also contributory factors.

WMSDs have been increasing in the office setting since the 1990s. Fitness professionals can help their desk-bound clients with these proven strategies:

  • Make sure the chair and workstation are set up correctly (see Figure 1, in the sidebar below). Posture has a significant effect on lumbar-disk loading.
  • Be aware that sitting, in and of itself, increases intervertebral disk pressure. This can be minimized by using a chair that allows the person to “lean” back, increasing the hip angle from 90° to 110° (Natchemson & Elfstr├Âm 1970). In this position, the spine should still be in neutral alignment and be supported by the chair.
  • Suggest to clients that they obtain a sit/stand workstation or alternate between sitting and standing to decrease fatigue and discomfort. It is acceptable to use stability balls for short periods of time, but they do not provide adequate support for extended sitting.
  • Learn about “tread desks,” which people have recently begun using (Lohr 2012). These workstations allow employees to walk on a treadmill at a slow (~3 mph) pace while working on their computer, talking on the phone, etc. It is a great option if space is available and the company is willing to make the investment.
  • Encourage clients to take frequent movement breaks to stretch, walk around, etc.

Most jobs include one or more risk factors for WMSDs. An ergonomist may be employed to analyze job tasks and implement corrective measures to help diminish or mitigate these risk factors and reduce the development of work-related injuries.

What Is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the science of adapting workplace conditions and job demands to the capability of the worker (OSHA 2000). Ergonomics draws on a number of scientific disciplines, including physiology, biomechanics, engineering, psychology, anthropometry, industrial hygiene and kinesiology. The goal of ergonomics is to reduce stress and eliminate injuries and disorders associated with poor posture and repeated tasks. A well-designed ergonomics program can help offset muscle imbalances, lessen muscle fatigue, increase productivity and reduce the number and severity of WMSDs (OSHA 2012).

Since the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ergonomics program standard in 2001, there has been no federal law mandating ergonomics regulation. Currently, California is the only state with an ergonomics standard. Consequently, companies must typically be convinced of the benefits in order to “buy in.” The most persuasive argument is the direct financial benefit derived from a more efficient and productive staff. Fewer injuries lead to less absenteeism, fewer workers’ compensation claims and longer careers.

Most ergonomics programs focus on

  • redesigning employees’ work environment and tasks;
  • educating and training employees; and
  • providing administrative guidelines.

Ergonomics Education and the Fitness Professional

There are many ways to pursue ergonomics training and education, including through continuing education credits, college courses, and undergraduate or graduate degrees. Only a few institutions offer an undergraduate degree that specializes in ergonomics—most degrees are earned at the master’s and doctoral levels (HFES 2014). Fitness professionals who want to expand their knowledge and skills, but don’t want to pursue a degree, may take courses and online classes at many institutions, including community colleges.

To learn more about ergonomics, please see “How to Train Clients for the Workplace” in the online IDEA Library or in the February 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.