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Puget Sound Business Journal: How Puget Sound Energy and Howard S. Wright, a Balfour Beatty company, train their 'industrial athlete'
September 23, 2016
by Coral Garnick
Early in his career, Fernando Moreno wasn’t fazed by repeatedly wresting 50-pound bags of dirt out of ditches.
For him, it was just another day in the life of a pipe fitter on Puget Sound Energy’s natural gas lines. Field crews would dig ditches and sling around jackhammers like it was nothing, he said.
But when Moreno woke up the next morning, he couldn’t move.
“I would lean in over the ditch, grab out a bag and twist around to set it down,” he said. “Not bending or squatting, just leaning over and grabbing — the worst thing you can do.”
It turns out Moreno strained a muscle in his back. It took him off the job for a month and a half and required physical therapy for even longer during that period in the early 1990s.
That is one of the reasons Moreno, who has been with PSE for 38 years, decided to participate in one of the utility company’s new six-week training programs that are meant to improve employee conditioning and flexibility while also strengthening muscles.
It is an effort by the company to reduce strains and sprains on job sites, which currently represent half of the injuries bad enough to require PSE employees to miss time from work or have job restrictions.
In 2014, there were 1.16 million days-away-from-work cases in private industry, state government and local government in the U.S., according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 32 percent of all injury and illness cases in 2014. Even just one injury can be costly for a company.
Because of that, many companies with field crews — not only utility companies with their electrical linemen, pipe fitters and substation wiremen, but also construction companies and manufacturers — offer safety tutorials and stretch-and-flex classes to try and reduce the number of workplace injuries.
Some companies are starting to take it even further, though, incorporating more into their safety and wellness programs to not only reduce on-the-job injuries for field workers, but also keep employees healthy far into their retirement years.
“It is not just about getting a low injury rate,” said PSE Corporate Safety Manager Ryan Blood. “That is important, but when you retire you should not retire to a chair because your body got beat up doing the work.”
Construction company Howard S. Wright has similar concerns for its workers.
“Construction workers as a whole, they don’t often have a long, healthy retirement because the stress they have done to their body,” said Brian Sorensen, director of safety, health and environment for the Northwest division of the company. “We want you to go home and live your life … be able to lift your grandkids, be able to go to the zoo with them.”
Wearing work boots, hard hats and bright green and orange reflective vests and jackets, Howard S. Wright’s construction crews at the 21-story office building at 1007 Steward — called Midtown 21 — begin their early-morning shifts with a warm-up to support their body throughout the day’s shift.
As the team huddles in the lower levels of the building to discuss the projects of the day, surrounded by concrete and project materials, they complete a series of stretches. Everyone participates, limbering up arms, backs and hamstrings for the job ahead.
The early-morning workout doesn’t just occur at Midtown 21. It’s repeated by about 150 construction workers at job sites all around the Puget Sound area.
Howard S. Wright in Seattle launched this stretch and flex program two years ago but the construction company is now looking into doing a larger program similar to what PSE is doing.
PSE and another construction company, Tunista, have both hired Seattle-based wellness company Vimocity to come in and work directly with field employees. For PSE, Vimocity performance specialists work with field crews on functional movements. Much like trainers do for professional athletes. They even call these hardworking laborers industrial athletes.
Vimocity CEO Kevin Rindal started Vimocity two years ago because he was encountering these industrial athletes in his role as a chiropractor and sports injury specialist and saw a bigger need.
“Industrial athletes make up the fabric of America. They are building our country, our roads, keeping the electricity on, responding to emergencies and building our infrastructure,” Rindal said.
Despite that, Rindal said, these are the people who often are given the least amount of attention when it comes to workplace wellness.
Rindal said there was a disconnect between the innovative practices he was using with elite athletes and the programs available to America’s workforce, despite the fact the two groups perform similar tasks and put their bodies at risk.
PSE agreed. The company had 700 employees participate in a voluntary starter program in 2015, which was about 70 percent of its field employee base. This year PSE added the six-week training sessions with performance specialists, which is meant to increase the likelihood of employees keeping up healthy habits.
Made up of a dozen 30-minute classes, more than 500 PSE employees have already gone through the training.
PSE has a budget of $150,000 for the year and has used some of it to purchased equipment for the classes and pay a per-employee fee to Vimocity, PSE’s Blood said.
That cost is minimal when compared to the cost of injury, he said.
“The average shoulder injury can range from $20,000 to 50,000,” Blood explained. “If we can prevent two to four of just this one type of injury by encouraging employees to be more flexible and strong in their joints, we have paid for the program.”
And that’s not counting the morale increases and positive physical effects for our employees, he added.
Tunista signed up its 40 field workers to work with Vimocity in July. The company replaced the traditional stretching and flexing its workers did with a more engaging seven-minute custom program crews do every day before starting work on job sites.
“The safety of our people is and always has been Tunista’s No. 1 priority,” said Lori Revely, Tunista’s business operations manager. “So, when we met with the Vimocity team, their training concept was a no-brainer for us.”
Where to begin
Because getting started is often the hardest part, Vimocity’s Rindal says it is important to have specialists work with employees to get them going. After having instruction for a short time, workers are more inclined to continue the healthy behavior.
Wearing his work boats, blue cargo pants and a gray PSE T-shirt, Moreno listened and followed along to the Vimocity specialist at PSE’s Kent facility during a class in August. With songs such as Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” playing in the background, he rolled out his muscles, held plank poses to strengthen his core and transitioned between various exercise to engage the hips, back and hamstrings.
He has diabetes and said he needs something to get moving and motivated and to stay healthy.
“Getting started is the hardest part,” Moreno said after the class.
As a public improvement inspector for PSE’s natural gas lines now, Moreno says he is not in the field as often as he used to be, but still finds himself in ditches wrapping pipes and contorting into all sorts of tight spaces.
“There is technique for everything. You wouldn’t think just digging a hole, but I’ll tell you what, I see people doing it wrong,” he said. “Working your core, legs, knees, squatting motions — it really does help.”
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