For the human body to be healthy, it needs to move. That's one of the benefits of working as a manual materials handler - movement is mandatory.
The issue, however, is the quality and quantity of the movement involved in the work. Performance needs to be monitored so that bad habits don’t create misaligned postures or cause overexertion injuries.
Wearable sensor technologies can reduce these risks. They use biofeedback in the form of individual data relating to the body (whether it is vibrational, tactile, auditory, or visible) to alert workers that they are putting their bodies under excessive strain.
Wearables essentially know the user better than they know themselves. Any type of feedback or signal given to the user by the device will enable them to see, feel, or hear their own performance and, thus, adjust and improve it. According to Franz Konstantin Fuss of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, “biofeedback training leads to improvement of performance faster than any conventional training and has higher success rates."
In this article, we'll take a closer look at how wearable devices can encourage safer movements and improve ergonomic safety in the workplace.
Dysfunctional Movement Patterns
Dysfunctional movement patterns performed by workers lead to issues in their body, including misaligned posture. Whether these movements are repetitive, awkward, frequent, overloaded, or overused, they have the potential to result in problems over the long run.
Dysfunctional movement patterns cause injury or pain, but what makes them so insidious is that it can happen very slowly and over time can result in body posture asymmetry.
One question health and safety managers should be asking is, “what measures are currently being used to prevent these dysfunctional movements from occurring?" And that begins with properly keeping track of those movements. As Peter Drucker famously stated, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
(Learn about the Risk Factors for Developing Musculoskeletal Disorders)
Strains, sprains, tears, soreness, lower back pain, and other soft tissue injuries are some of the most common causes of days off work. And the cause of these incidents is largely under-controlled or underregulated in the workplace. Why? Because traditional observational and classroom training methods to monitor the causes of these types of injuries have limitations. They are unable to provide individuals with the continual personalized recommendations that are required to elicit the movement behavioral change necessary for improvement.
Since dysfunctional movement patterns are at the root of musculoskeletal safety, we can simplify our training decisions. The right training will be the one that results in movement changes.
What elicits movement change in workers? Is there one thing that determines whether or not they will alter their actions? No, there are many relevant factors. Their perceived barriers, facilitators, motives, and preferred learning styles all play a role in whether change occurs. Part of a safety manager's role is to work with those factors and determine who needs what and how.
The Transtheoretical Model of Behavioral Change
One framework used as an explanatory to change is the Transtheoretical Model.
This theory breaks behavioral change down into five steps and it can help us understand how the use of wearables in the workplace can influence the way workers carry out their movements and tasks.
Precontemplation: The Worker Is Not Aware That a Change Needs to Be Made
At this stage, the behavior is not seen as high-risk. There is, therefore, no intention to change the behavior.
Hazardous movement patterns that are repetitive or excessive can aggravate or cause ergonomic injuries and chronic pain. Many workers, however, are not aware that their movements are either causing them pain or have the potential to lead to injury.
How, then, does an individual become aware of this?
Traditional in-class manual handling training provides the necessary fundamental correct movement patterns. However, we now have sufficient evidence that these teachings are not applied in the work environment. It also fails to address the compounding factors of lifting technique, posture, task repetition, and intensity, which most often lead to the onset of lower back pain and musculoskeletal disorders, rather than a singular instance of poor manual handling.
Contemplation: The Worker Beings to Think About Changing Their Behavior
Feedback sensors can bring the worker to the contemplation stage of behavioral change. Alerts from their wearable devices can indicate when movements are being performed incorrectly or are dangerously repetitive.
Wearables can provide valuable information to each individual, personalizing their training. They may begin to take notice of the way they are moving and see opportunities for improvement.
Preparation: The Worker Intends to Take Action
Wearables present the opportunity for workers to challenge themselves to improve. The data they provide allows them to compete with themselves, or in some cases with their colleagues.
Motivated by the understanding that some of the movements they perform carry a high risk and have the potential for injury, the worker begins to consider ways to alter their behavior, initiate small changes, and seek advice.
Action: The Worker's Behavior Is Modified
Real-time biofeedback and movement data that is linked to personal feedback and coaching that empowers workers and fosters their autonomy. This motivates them to take action and change the movements they perform at work.
A 2019 study published by Sensors made use of sensors and biofeedback and reported that users had increased awareness, enhanced adherence, and positive experiences with their wearable devices.
Maintenance: The Worker Keeps Up the Desired Behavior
By keeping track of objective data, workers can continue to decrease high-risk movements that have the potential to cause injury. This acts as a motivator, provides clear indication of improvements, and allows users to track changes. Continual biofeedback reminders assist in preventing relapse and helps imprint correct movement patterns.
Keeping track of the movements of each individual employee is nearly impossible, especially in large organizations. Successfully doing so would be an impossible and costly task without the use of some form of technical user-centered designed solution.
Wearables offer data-driven insights about the types of movements workers perform, their frequency, location, time, and the level of risk associated with them. They have the ability to provide management with useful information to help assist workers in making environmental or individual changes that will decrease their risk of ergonomic injury. They also allow companies to deploy deeply tailored training based on objective results.
This form of personalized training is required for managing musculoskeletal safety in the workplace and give workers the best possible chance to stay safe, fit, and healthy.