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Can Stretching Programs Prevent Back Injuries?

Every morning, I get up and do some stretches to help increase the flexibility in my back. As I have gotten older and become more prone to back pain, I find regular stretching can help. While stretching may help people who are aging or those with back pain, can it help prevent workers from getting injured in the first place?

This was the question posed to a panel of experts at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference in 2013 in Montreal. The title of the panel was “Stretching: The Truth.” The panel consisted of ergonomists, physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, industrial hygienists (including myself) and one person with a Ph.D. in Biomechanics. Here is what the panel concluded:

  • Your risk of injury is related to the amount of force placed on the spine and muscles. Stretching does nothing to reduce the amount of force. That only happens through redesign of the job.
  • Studies on the benefits of stretching are complicated because such programs are often not started in isolation. There are often ergonomic changes made at the same time.
  • The costs of a stretching program sometimes go unrecognized. If each worker stretches 10 minutes each day, the costs add up quickly and that money could be better spent providing ergonomic solutions to reduce the risks.
  • All stretching is not alike. It may be more useful to have warm-up exercises than stretches. If stretches are done, they should be tailored to the type of work being performed. Overall fitness may be more important in terms of injury prevention than stretching certain muscles.
  • The actual benefits of a stretching program may come more from the opportunity to plan the day’s work during that time and build team cooperation.

In short, stretching does not help prevent back injuries. By focusing prevention efforts on improving individual workers rather than changing the work and reducing the risk, stretching programs fall into the “blame the worker” approach.

In trying to prevent injuries, safety professionals rely on the “hierarchy of controls.” In this hierarchy, the best (most effective) solution is to eliminate the hazard. Below that is reducing the exposure using engineering controls or through a redesign of the process. Next are administrative controls like rotating workers to reduce their individual exposures. Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) can also help, but is lower on the hierarchy and considered less effective. Where would stretching be on the hierarchy of controls? If it appeared anywhere, stretching would be at the bottom, below even PPE.

As we discovered with back belts, stretching programs are not silver bullets capable of preventing back injuries among workers with physical jobs like those in the construction industry. No matter how much you stretch, you will still have a high risk of back injury if your job requires you to perform heavy lifting tasks (e.g., lifting 90 lb. bags of concrete mix) all day. The best approach is to look at the demands of each task and identify ways to reduce the risk by changing what the task demands.

The LHSFNA’s web site has a dedicated Ergonomics and Construction page with hundreds of ideas and solutions to do just that, including tool-based and task-based methods to reduce injury. The Fund also has several publications to help members and contractors implement a comprehensive approach to preventing these injuries. Order the Back Injury Prevention manual, the Laborers’ Guide to Preventing Sprains and Strains in Construction or the Ergonomics Manual for Mason Tenders through the online Publications Catalogue at Relying on stretching programs to do the trick alone is a stretch.

Editor’s note: a more technical version of this article appeared in the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s January 2015 issue of The Synergist.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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