It’s no secret that a typical construction jobsite can be dangerous for workers. Even with every government-mandated safety precaution in place, companies across the country struggle to protect their employees from preventable workplace injuries. According to a study by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in the construction industry suffered over 200,000 nonfatal injuries and 1,000 fatal injuries in 2019. Beyond the immeasurable toll in human suffering and loss, workplace injuries also financially impact employees’ families, employers and the nation in the form of lost wages, medical and administrative expenses and employers’ uninsured costs — as much as $171 billion in 2019.
The traditional method of keeping medical personnel on location or nearby to respond after a workplace injury occurs does not appear to be enough to combat these chilling statistics. But a new trend in workplace injury prevention is quickly emerging that addresses workplace injuries before they occur, resulting in a safer work environment and reduced medical expenses and downtime.
Commonly referred to as an industrial athlete program, certified athletic trainers are hired as full-time employees to look after a workforce. While they are fully trained to deliver first aid in the event of a workplace injury, these individuals’ primary objective is to monitor the workplace processes and the workers who complete them to assure everything is as safe as possible.
Initial applications of this program have been met with much success, because just like athletes on a sports team, workers in the construction industry must complete the same type of physically demanding and repetitive motions on a regular basis. Providing these workers with the same sort of attention that collegiate and professional athletes receive has resulted in reduced injuries and accidents.
One of these industrial athletic trainers is Brandon Sipes. Sipes is a certified athletic trainer with an advanced degree in kinesiology (the study of the principles of mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement) and exercise science, who for the past several years has worked on construction jobsites to protect the health and safety of workers. Being at the forefront of this trend, Sipes can offer some insight into the commonly asked questions about this new approach to health and wellness on the jobsite.
Q: Is injury prevention versus treatment a shift from conventional industry thinking?
SIPES: I believe prevention has always been on the industry’s mind. That’s what safety teams are doing daily. However, having an on-site industrial athletic trainer enhances the client’s safety plan by bringing in a clinical expert who is highly skilled in injury prevention, ergonomics, appropriate training and stretching programs and overall health promotion.
Q: What additional knowledge and skills are necessary for an athletic trainer to be qualified to assist on the jobsite?
SIPES: Industrial athletic trainers need to have a strong understanding of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements and ergonomics. We provide this training to our associates to ensure they are well equipped to support our clients on-site. In addition, effective communication and collaboration are key to partnering with clients and their employees to be an extension of their jobsite safety team. Finally, having a solid background in the field of athletic training is always an advantage and will only expand our capabilities to prevent injuries and promote employee health in a meaningful way.
Q: What’s the biggest complaint related to physical health that you hear on the jobsite?
SIPES: Fatigue is common. Construction is a physical job and, depending on the specific jobsite, it can mean working anywhere from 5 to 7 days per week and 8- to 12-hour shifts. It’s easy to lose focus when you’re fatigued and let your guard down, which is when accidents can occur. A close second is injuries from overuse, or repetitive movement.
Q: What is it about repetitive actions and overuse that can cause injury?
SIPES: Overuse injury is any type of injury to the muscle or joint that is caused by repetitive trauma. The overuse injuries that we deal with typically happen when workers take on too much physical activity too quickly, especially an activity that strains the same muscle group for a long period of time. Another cause is improper technique, using poor form to swing a hammer or complete some other physically demanding work process, which can overload the muscles and cause an injury. We address these through daily, customized stretch-and-flex exercises and monitoring working processes for ergonomic improvements.
Q: Do daily exercise programs look the same for all industrial athletes?
SIPES: No. When we do exercise programs, we look at the job, how it is performed and what the weaknesses are, and do focused exercises to decrease injuries to those areas. It may truly be a customized approach for each employee and job type. We also complete pre-task planning to address any other potential dangers that the day’s work could pose.
Q: What is pre-task planning?
SIPES: Pre-task planning is a meeting prior to the start of the workday. In this meeting, everyone on the team meets to discuss what will be done during the day and what equipment will be used. During this time, we will discuss the hazards associated with each task being completed and what should be
done to prevent injuries from happening. This helps to keep each day’s specific risks to health and safety at the top of mind for the workers who will face
it and is a good way to promote health and wellness as a part of the company culture.
Q: How do you help with new hires on the jobsite?
SIPES: We complete a new hire capability test with medical history review, and tests for a variety of parameters including heart rate, blood pressure, flexibility and a range of different strength tests. The goal is to create groups or classes based on job descriptions that help people work safely based on what their bodies will allow them to do.
Q: Is it hard to garner buy-in from workers?
SIPES: We earn workers’ trust by being present on every jobsite as a go-to resource, frequently making rounds to help keep them safe and healthy. We work within their ranks to develop a rapport and make them feel comfortable and confident in approaching us with any questions they have about how to stay healthy.
Q: Have on-the-job injuries on your worksites decreased?
Sipes: Not only have our clients reported reduced workplace injuries and medical expenses, but increased productivity due to workers’ decreased soreness at the end of every workday. We’re also able to demonstrate employer’s dedication to workers’ safety through our constant presence and by acting as a readily available resource for their workforce.
Taylor Newlove-Chimes, MPH, RDN, LD, CHES, is the director of human performance at Harness Health Partners, a company offering solutions
that are intentionally designed to maximize employee performance. Her team is focused on helping employers optimize employee health, wellness and performance through award-winning employee well-being programs, employee assistance programs, industrial athlete programs and more.