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Employers turn to athletic trainers to keep work teams off the disabled list

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Sophisticated employers are implementing programs to address workers' physical ailments before they become costly injuries.

“We're at work sometimes more than we're at home,” said Maria Henderson, senior director of workforce health at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in San Francisco. If employers don't promote preventive care and offer resources to workers, “it's not going to happen.”

PG&E is among companies using what are known as industrial athlete programs to increase employee engagement and reduce workers compensation and group medical costs and absenteeism.

The idea has been around more than 10 years, but experts say only a small percentage of employers have such a program in place.

Like athletes, many workers put their bodies through tremendous stress, said Marty Matney, program manager and head athletic trainer at Work-Fit L.L.C. The Everett, Washington-based company manages injury prevention, on-site fitness and other programs for employers as part of Agility Health L.L.C.

While “athletes may subject their bodies to maximum exertion for about two to three hours a day,” employees might be at it for 10 hours, he said.

Often led by athletic trainers, industrial athlete programs target at-risk workers and can include workstation analysis, stretching and conditioning, resistance training, massage therapy and first aid, he said.

Participating workers visit a trainer at the first sign of discomfort, and the trainer decides whether he or she can handle the problem or send the worker to a physician, Mr. Matney said.

“The program is intended to “interrupt that discomfort and injury cycle” so workers don't have to have surgery, miss work or go out on disability, Ms. Henderson said.

The goal is to keep injuries from “becoming debilitating to the team — whether it's the football team or the company,” Mr. Matney said.

PG&E is rolling out its program to workers in physically demanding roles, regardless of whether the discomfort is occupational or nonoccupational.

For example, a worker may twist their ankle playing softball, Mr. Matney said.

“Let's say they climb up and down ladders all day long with a bad ankle. If they fall off,” it becomes an occupational injury, he said.

The high cost of musculoskeletal disorders — between workers comp, safety incidents, group health, absenteeism and productivity losses — led PG&E to implement a program, Ms. Henderson said.

“In any one year, we're spending over $100 million on musculoskeletal (disorders), and that's conservative,” Ms. Henderson said.

“(Musculoskeletal) is a tough category for people to get their arms around,” said Denise Fleury, Orange, California-based senior vice president of disability and absence management at Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. Many employers know how to work with employees with diabetes or a broken leg, but making sure people are “physically fit and have the strength and flexibility they need to do their work is more challenging.” A frequent cause of injuries is workers who are “not really physically fit enough to do their jobs.”

“Now, many employers are saying to employees, at the first sign of a strain or a problem during any part of your job, we want you to let us know and we'll have someone take a look at it and evaluate it,” Ms. Fleury said.

What Mr. Matney calls “upstream care” doesn't have to end there and can extend to other workers doing similar tasks to “stop them from starting to get hurt.”

“The cost of keeping someone at work is minimal compared to the cost of losing someone and having to replace them,” in addition to the physical effect on employees, Ms. Fleury said.

While such programs may increase workers comp claims initially, the severity — and thus costs — decline as workers receive timely care, Ms. Henderson said.

United Parcel Service Inc. has an industrial athlete component of its larger work readiness, safety and wellness program, said Bob Gerlach, the Atlanta-based company's global director of injury prevention and comprehensive health and safety process.

“To be fit from the job is a lot different than to be fit for the job,” Mr. Gerlach said, adding that UPS delivery drivers walk about four miles a day.

“Think about the routine of a delivery driver,” he said. “In and out of a vehicle multiple times, having to retrieve goods out of the vehicle and/or if they're picking them up, taking them and putting them in the vehicle. There's some physical activity in that, but just doing those actions alone only conditions a certain number of muscles.”

UPS, which is trying to promote overall fitness among other goals, recommends that its employees begin the day with basic upper and lower body stretches, Mr. Gerlach said. But some groups go further. For example, one UPS operation in California started doing yoga and went 13 months without an injury, he said.