Stretching and Ergonomics
This article is reprinted with permission from The Ergonomics Report™ Archives, where it originally appeared on January 1, 2004.
[Editor's Note: This article from 2004 suggests that workplace stretching and exercise programs should not be used in place of an ergonomics approach that fits the work to the worker, not vice-versa. In addition, the article suggests there is no scientific research basis — no evidence — to support stretching as an workplace injury prevention method. Has the nature of effective ergonomics changed, or has a scientific basis for stretching as a workplace injury prevention strategy been demonstrated, since this was written in 2004? Should stretching be labeled as "ergonomics?"]
New year, new resolutions. It’s tradition. We dust off the treadmill, join the gym, vow to replace the bad habits with good, put our own health-directed goals at the forefront. But no one who pedals a stationary bike or stubs out that final cigarette does so with the belief that he or she is improving ergonomics. It’s merely an improvement in health that they’re seeking.
So why, when implemented in the workplace, do resolutions that encourage workers to partake in on-the-job exercise programs, install and use stretch-break reminder software at their computer workstations, or commit to a personal wellness plan, so often get confused with ergonomics?
Ergonomics, by definition, should strive to fit the work to the worker, not vice versa, which could mean anything from improving the worker-task relationship, the worker-tool relationship or how the worker fits into the overall operation. In each of these instances, the worker is key, and when a system isn’t working to its full capacity, possibly due to poor design that results in productivity issues or injuries, some aspect has to change – either the worker or the system. Following the tenets of ergonomics, it’s the system that should change.
Simply put, humans cannot be redesigned to accommodate a poorly constructed system. But a flawed system CAN be modified to accommodate and work effectively with human capabilities.
Take workplace stretching, for example. Whether it has a value or not when combined with ergonomics measures intent on improving a system has yet to be proven by science, but when used alone as “ergonomics,” a program that requires the worker to modify himself or herself in order to fit the flawed system simply cannot work. Yet it happens in business everyday.
“Whatever stretching is, it is clearly not a substitute for ergonomic analysis and intervention. Our experience in the workplace suggests it risks becoming such a substitute. When workers say ‘I do my ergonomics every morning,’ we need to pay attention to better education and more care in implementing stretching programs,” wrote Jennifer Hess, DC, MPH, in a 2002 statement to Ergoweb Inc. Hess, who has studied and compiled research on the injury prevention effectiveness of stretching, agrees that it is an “important part of injury rehabilitation,” but as injury prevention, she indicates that there are still a number of issues that need to be addressed.
“There’s very little that demonstrates the efficacy of stretching,” says Hess. “But people are honing in on stretching; it’s fast and easy.” Hess has even seen a group of maintenance workers at the University of Oregon campus where she’s employed participate in a stretching program. The resulting flexibility changes, she reports, were marginal.
A paper published in 2002 by Rob D. Herbert and Michael Gabriel, titled “Effects of Stretching Before and After Exercise On Muscle Soreness and Risk of Injury: A Systematic Review,” sought to find out if stretching had an impact on the injury risk for athletes. The results of the review indicated that “stretching produced small and statistically non-significant reductions in muscle soreness” and in the two studies that looked specifically at risk of injury after stretching for military recruits, pre-workout stretching also had no apparent impact on the risk of injury, although the reviewers noted that more research was needed.
Hess’s own review of the impact of workplace stretching, specifically, found thefollowing: