Bringing Your Workforce Back During the Pandemic: Can This Lead to an Increase in Workplace Injuries?

SHARE

By Mike Marinan, Director of Member Services – Public Risk Underwriters of Florida, Inc.

Many municipalities and special districts took different approaches to handling their workplace during the pandemic. Some restricted public access. Others created a hybrid workplace where some employees worked from home and others in the office. Some operations had hours and employees significantly restricted. Many of the employees were first responders and essential, their schedules and locations did not change. An observation made by some is a noticeable uptick in workplace injuries as employees have returned to the workplace and schedules have normalized.

It may be a stretch to compare the employees working in the office or parks and rec or water and wastewater to an athlete (maybe not), but you can draw a correlation to this situation. When an athlete takes a hiatus, either due to an injury or after a competitive event, endurance levels and strength capabilities begin to diminish. We’ve all heard the phrase “use it or lose it”-well, it’s true. According to many exercise professionals, if we start to slack (or stop training all together), deconditioning begins and is noticeable within as few as seven days, and after a prolonged break (a month or two), we can experience a significant or almost complete loss of fitness. The actual timeframes depend on the individual’s level of fitness before the break. No one is immune to deconditioning, not the marathon runner, and not the average worker.

It makes sense. The less you move, lift and carry-whether on a weight bench or on the shop floor or even in the office-the more your heart must work. Physical deconditioning means reduced cardiovascular health, muscle mass and flexibility. Muscular strength is a critical fitness category to address. Simply put, if you don’t use it, you lose it, the following are examples of how inactivity causes deconditioning:

  • Reduced cardiovascular fitness: Lack of physical activity can cause the heart to atrophy, making it more difficult to pump blood to working muscles.
  • Reduced physical endurance: Our energy utilization shifts, which results in lactic acid buildup and whole-body fatigue.
  • Reduced muscle strength: The average person can lose between 1% and 3% of muscle strength per day. 
  • Reduced range of motion: Weeks of reduced activity may limit our ability to extend or bend body segments due to less elasticity and increased muscle stiffness.
  • Weight gain: As we transition from daily physical activity to less, we burn fewer calories.  
 
Workers returning to full duty after prolonged absence require extra diligence to address at-risk behaviors. Employers should have safety programs designed to address lifting, ergonomics and other aspects of safety and safe worker behavior. However, workers that have been away for a while may quickly adopt physically unsound work practices.
 

Back strains and lifting injuries have been the loss leader for the Trust before the pandemic so if the employee is not in adequate condition, you might expect that trend to continue or get worse. It is as important as ever to be sure that everyone is aware of the proper lifting techniques, if not, give us a call we can help with that.

As always, avoiding workplace injuries is paramount, a few items you might want to address as we move forward:

  • Limit overtime hours Employers should consider having more employees work fewer hours, as opposed to having fewer employees work more hours. This will prevent additional physical stress.
  • Encourage proactive communication to ensure employees know that they can (and should) report physical discomfort. A review of the activity being done, or an ergonomic evaluation can help.
  • Encourage employees to take all available breaks throughout the day. Breaks from physical activity allow time for muscle recovery. Encourage employees to focus on personal fitness and overall well-being during their personal time. Advise them to take daily walks to maintain cardiovascular fitness and try at-home workouts to maintain muscle strength and overall fitness.
  • Provide training/retraining of job-related tasks to reinforce safe work methods. Training provides reinforcement of safety work methods, selection and use of proper personal protective equipment as well as proper tools necessary to complete job-related tasks in a safe manner.
 

The pandemic and what it has done to the work environment is unprecedented, fortunately it shouldn’t take employees long to recondition themselves to the normal work environment and hopefully we never have to do this again.