Addressing the Human Factor
in Ergonomic Solutions

by Lawrence Gold Credentials | Publications | Personal Page
Certified Hanna Somatic Educator

Ergonomic workplace design is a partial, "necessary but not sufficient" solution for on-the-job injuries. The "necessary" element of an Illness and Injury Prevention program involves both workplace design and proper training and conditioning of the worker.

This article differs from most such articles that emphasize "work hardening" and "strengthening". Instead, it talks about muscular control and coordination (which includes good "body mechanics"). In fact, it criticizes the concept of "work hardening" as contributing to work-related injures.

M ost workplace injuries involve musculo-skeletal disorders. Repetitive movement patterns and habitual working positions condition the muscular and nervous system into states of tension that lead to injury. At sub-clinical levels, chronic muscular tension is debilitating, creates pain and depletes the body's energy reserves. At clinically significant levels, heightened muscular tension causes muscle pain, joint compression, and nerve impingements that don't readily yield to manipulative clinical approaches. Another approach is needed.

   While it's true heightened muscular tension results from injury, it also predisposes people to injury.

   Understand that these disorders result from conditioning problems and can be prevented by proper conditioning. The answer is not "work hardening" or strengthening; that is not the proper kind of conditioning for most musculo-skeletal disorders. (At the very least, the term, "hardening," is misleading.) The answer is coordination training. Rarely are the affected muscles weak; most often, they are extremely strong, extremely contracted, fatigued and sore. The sense of fatigue conveys a false sense of weakness. Coordination training brings movement under better control and eliminates excessive, accumulated muscular tension that causes soreness, muscle fatigue, and excessive strain on joints.

While it's true that heightened muscular tension results from injury, it also predisposes people to injury through clumsy movement and a rising habituaL tension level until muscles suddenly spasm.
   Typical strengthening and stretching programs cause people to accumulate muscular tension. That they are the wrong strategy can be seen in the poor expectations people have for recovery, which commonly takes months. It need not be that way.

Proper conditioning eliminates excessive and habitual muscular tension -- and that isn't a detriment, since full strength capacity remains; it's a safety zone.

    To eliminate excessive muscular tension is a natural bodily function; we see it in yawning. With proper training, people can be taught to purge excessive muscular tension without need for massage therapy or medical intervention.

    To maintain flexibility and suppleness does not require one continually to think about posture, nor does it require limiting activities; it requires an awareness (newly developed or improved) of whether one is developing muscular tensions in ones working position and adjusting accordingly into a more efficient (and more comfortable) way of working. To develop that bodily awareness requires more than being told, more than self-monitoring. It requires a further awakening of the individual's bodily awareness, a kind of learning that occurs at the brain-level. That topic is covered later in this essay.

Awareness and Coordination of Movement: The Crux of Ergonomics

   While badly designed workstations and furniture or hazardous working conditions can lead to injury, coordination and awareness of bodily position are not "sideline issues"; they are the crux of ergonomic solutions. Ergonomic solutions serve "bodily working position," which is primary.

    How so?

    No matter how good the working conditions, muscular tensions maintained while working intefere with coordination and add to pain and fatigue. Poor coorination leads to injury; pain and fatigue lead to protective guarding that may last long after injured tissue has healed, which is why injuries so commonly linger (and are sometimes mistaken for malingering). The residual, heightened muscular tensions of guarding cause the pain. Accumulated tension produces muscular soreness and sets the stage for muscle spasms.

    To improve awareness of body mechanics (ones habitual ways of moving) has become a common approach to injury prevention. However, old movement habits interfere with new movement habits. People tend to return, unconsciously, to their old ways, particularly under heavy demands of work or when fatigued. While valuable, movement instruction reaches its limit where habits of guarding old injuries still exist.
The fact that people change how them move to avoid the pain of an injury shows that they instinctually recognize that they are in danger of further injury. That act of guarding against pain interferes with coordination and sets the stage for future injury. Old injuries lead to new injuries.

Bodily Movement and Position

    Too often, people do not correct situations until they have become critical. Habitual tension adds strain to a job, distorts posture, and makes better body-use patterns feel "unnatural". Often, people do not realize that there is a problem until it has become critical. With repetitive use injuries and lifting injuries, the problem has developed for a very long time before it incapacitates the individual and drops them into a medical situation. Injuries in themselves may leave residual muscular tensions that can lead to further injury.

    There are two reasons for this situation: (1) the person has become used to the gradually-accumulating strain and has lost the ability to feel it, and/or (2) he or she does not know what to do about it and so fails to address it effectively. A third possibility is that people don't feel themselves deserving of care for what they feel is developing.

Intelligent Self-Care

    Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., a pioneer of sensory-motor learning, developed a form of training that frees people from the pain of old injuries, enables them to to work more naturally in more efficient and safer ways and to sense when they may be in danger of injuring themselves and to correct themselves before injury happens.

    Here are some of its benefits.

  1. Reduces or eliminates pain from old injures
  2. Improves coordination
  3. Improves strength and speed
  4. Reduces change of future injury
  5. Prevents repetitive-use trauma (cumulative trauma syndrome)
    The approach he worked out retrains muscles at the automatic level so that old ways of moving are replaced by better ways of moving in advance of the demands and hazards of work.

    People who use the exercises or undergo the clinical procedures Dr. Hanna developed experience a more safety from injury, better flexibility and coordination, physical comfort, and lower stress levels.

    Recovery from lifting injuries with Dr. Hanna's methods can occur as quickly as one week, with four weeks or so for more severe injuries, pain free and in full command of ones movements. Coordination, strength and comfort replace "work hardening" as goals of the program.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
-- Benjamin Franklin


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