Written by Nic Patee, CEO

As parents, we strive to do the best job possible raising our kids. We aim to provide opportunities for educational experiences through at home experiments. I know recently at our house the slime experiment has been a real hit. We aim to improve their social experiences through sports leagues or scouting activities. Beyond these, many parents try and cultivate experiences to nurture their character through church or community activities. All these activities are of the best intentions, and as a whole can create a balanced childhood, but if your experience is anything like mine it also creates an unintended consequence of a chaotic lifestyle for the family. The examples of us running from event to event, eating on the fly, and getting home well past bedtime are too numerous to count. With our good intentions of creating a balanced childhood for our kids, we have created a hectic lifestyle that is so full of events it runs afoul of dedicating time to connect. The shelter in place response to COVID-19 has highlighted this exceptionally well for our family as it has required us to #stayhomeandstaysafe and created an opportunity for nurturing our kids, but also reflecting on our “old normal”. 

I believe this may be a powerful analogy for our corporate health and safety initiatives as we respond to COVID-19. We have had many well-intentioned interventions, such as quarantine, or StayHomeStaySafe policies. Many factories that we partner with have shut down for extended periods of time to flatten the curve and ultimately stop the spread of COVID-19. But now, as we begin to return to normal operation, I fear we may have an unintended consequence that we may not be adequately prepared for. Similar to the “chaotic lifestyle” that developed ferrying my kids from event to event, our shelter in place orders have created a multi-pronged perfect storm environment for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). 

Much of the workforce has been out of work for an extended period of time, not performing the traditional physical demands of their job, and likely living a more sedentary lifestyle than traditionally required by their career. Access to fitness centers, and in some states such as ours, public trails and parks, have been minimized limiting the ability for physical activity while at home. As a Physical Therapist, I have often counseled patients that muscles will begin to atrophy within as little as 2 weeks of deconditioning. Many of our Industrial Athletes have been at home far greater than 14 days at this point resulting in substantial muscle atrophy and deconditioning. The deconditioned Industrial Athlete is the first ingredient of our MSD perfect storm environment. 

As we resume manufacturing, distributing, construction, etc. we are unlikely to return at a pace that will allow for gradual conditioning. Instead, corporations are bringing people back to work (in the aforementioned deconditioned state) often in a role that they have little familiarity with and asking them to perform at similar takt times as were required pre-COVID. Return to work staffing often follows seniority-based decision making meaning the most tenured employees return to work first. This is a critical risk factor for cumulative trauma disorders such as rotator cuff syndrome or lumbar disc disorders. People who are deconditioned, but also lack the ability to draw on muscle memory to perform a task have poor quality of movement. Combine this with the likely advanced age and deconditioning substantially increases our risk for occupational MSD’s.  New job demands and new expectations are ingredient #2 of the impending MSD perfect storm. 

A third ingredient that many organizations are overlooking, is the element of financial anxiety that all Americans are faced with. This fear and apprehension is amplified in a workforce where the majority of employees operate paycheck to paycheck. They do not want to be out of work after their extended shelter in place. They also have a preconceived bias towards their employers and likely are hearing rumors around the water cooler about people getting laid off for reporting injuries. While this is likely untrue (and entirely illegal), it is a paradigm that many are facing in the workforce. While this paradigm of the workforce is hopefully unfounded, our Industrial Athletes have been watching the same media that we have. They are reading the constant updates on their newsfeeds that are thriving on fear. This creates real anxiety for them as they return to work. As they handle their fears internally, they will be less likely to talk with their health and safety representatives about their early aches and pains. They are much more likely to wait to report until they feel that they have no other option. This delayed reporting of MSD injuries will have the potential of leading to greater severity of MSD injuries and less effective proactive strategies. While the implications of this delayed response to MSD risk factors will not immediately impact our return to work strategies, it likely will rear it’s ugly head 8-10 weeks following our return to work. The opportunity for preventing this potential MSD pandemic in mid-July sits on our shoulders today. Providing solutions to proactively address the perfect storm of MSD risk factors needs to be a key element of our COVID return to work response.   

Beyond this, driving awareness of our concerns of future MSD injuries, we wanted to leave EHS Professionals with a couple of recommendations to better prepare the workforce for returning to work post COVID, specific to the MSD ingredients we mentioned. We recommend considering the following:       

  1. Create a strategy to drive interactions and break down personal paradigms. Expect that the workforce is going to be less open about their aches and pains as normal and create a strategy around engaging them in their space. This can be done through perception surveys, line-side walks, or a more proactive ergonomic observation schedule. Leverage your injury prevention teams and mobilize them to operate most of their interactions in the work environment, side by side the workforce. 
  2. Develop a leadership strategy that breaks down apprehension, anxiety, and fears. This is best done at all levels, including the executives. Create a clear, values-driven message that resonates throughout the organization and recognizes challenges beyond just the expected COVID related risk factors. Identify resources for aches and pains, deconditioning, and mental health so that the services are readily recognized by, and accessible to, the workforce. If you need help building this strategy, organizations such as Krause Bell Group are more than capable of assisting with this. 
  3. Provide return to work conditioning programs for the Industrial Athlete. Work Right has built a return to work Industrial Athlete Conditioning program that we are distributing free to anyone who may benefit from it. It is located on our YouTube page and has a daily 15-minute conditioning progression for the Industrial Athlete returning to work. You can check it out here
  4. Mobilize your ergonomic team to leverage technology to better understand worker’s capabilities and the jobs that we are putting them in. Work Right is using wearable technology to quantify the physical demands of the job. We are also using computer vision technology to perform functional movement screens for the Industrial Athlete and assisting workers in proactive strategies to help them manage the changing physical demands of their jobs. This allows for a data focused, proactive outreach to better detect potential risk factors for MSD injuries down the road. 

Ultimately so much change and mobilization to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to create unintended consequences for the workforce as we move towards our new normal. As a parent, my first responsibility to COVID-19 was the health and safety of my kids. As we have lived in this COVID lifestyle for an extended period of time, I began to realize the unintended consequences of our hectic lifestyle. It has been in this experience that I have had time to reflect on deviations in the way that I parent my kids to create a more balanced life for them in the future. My wife and I have found ourselves making small changes already in preparation for when things return to “the new normal” for our kids so that we are prepared. We feel that similar diligence is critical for health and safety leaders to adequately prepare for strategies directly related to COVID-19, but also the indirect impacts that this COVID period has created, such as the potential MSD pandemic 8-10 weeks from now. While we wouldn’t have admitted that our lives were hectic in the past, COVID-19 gave us a reminder that we can improve. We believe similarly that proper preparation for the potential MSD challenges will allow us to bend the potential curve of MSD injuries and keep our Industrial Athletes healthy and safe.