Employers, hospital add new tools to reduce job-related pain

Chiropractor Christopher Scott has been seeing patients for about a year for the Good Shepherd Healthcare System in Hermiston. Scott is just the first recruitment is Good Shepherd's first step in a plan to develop a comprehensive pain-management program.

Work can be pain in the neck. Or back. Or feet.

Employees in physically demanding industries, such as manufacturing and shipping, can be particularly vulnerable to injury, and Good Shepherd Health Care System in Hermiston is hoping to better address the needs of the many area residents who work in those industries. Good Shepherd spokesman Nick Bejarano said the hospital is working on a comprehensive pain management program that will eventually feature behavioral health, acupuncture, massage therapy, physical therapy and more.

“They can begin working on a plan of action to get people back to work and to the lifestyle they’re accustomed to,” he said.

The hospital’s first move was to hire chiropractor Christopher Scott about a year ago. Scott said he sees many patients who have job-related pain. Sometimes it’s an older patient whose body is breaking down after years of physical labor, and other times it’s an acute injury that happened when someone lifted something.

“There’s a lot of physicality in what these guys do,” he said.

Patients who come in to see Scott get a work-up of X-rays and other diagnostic tests before Scott works with them on addressing the “biomechanical” causes of their pain. He performs hands-on manipulations but also teaches patients about exercises they can do at home to build core strength and help prevent future injuries.

Preventing injuries

Companies have their own programs that they hope will prevent employees from being injured in the first place. At the Walmart Distribution Center in Hermiston, manager Josh Burns said his duty is to make sure associates go home safely every day.

One way he does that is through a program called Axonify. At least once a week employees log into one of the work stations around the distribution center and answer a series of questions about how to do their particular job safely. Afterward, they get to choose from a selection of computer games to play. They can challenge other employees and compare high scores.

“It’s a little more fun than at our meetings reminding people of a list of rules,” Burns said.

The company also had an ergonomics specialist come in and teach them a series of stretches for each type of work, designed to prevent injury. An associate from each department leads their team in stretches daily.

Physical preparation is important when some employees are manually moving as many as 10,000 boxes per day.

Burns said there are a variety of other ways Walmart seeks to keep its associates safe, including regular analysis of data. If the company can see a spike in shoulder injuries at a certain time of year, they will look at what might be contributing to the problem and how to mitigate it.

Another of Hermiston’s largest employers, Lamb Weston, also has safety programs in place to protect employees. Tony Campbell, director of safety and health, said he has seen a lot of improvements to employee health and safety over his 17 years with the company. At their Richland plant, for example, Campbell said they’re now over a year without an OSHA-recordable injury.

“We’ve really drastically reduced our incident rate,” he said.

Lamb Weston has internal focus groups and audits geared toward improving safety for each job, and like Walmart, has worked with ergonomics specialists to build a program of stretches, joint-strengthening exercises, posture-building movements and activities to increase stability while walking on wet surfaces.

Not only do the exercises help with employee wellness, but Campbell said it also gives team leaders an opportunity to spot if an employee seems extra tired or distracted.

“That’s when they say, ‘Maybe today is not the day to have Tony up on a ladder,’” he said.

Lamb Weston has also increased automation for some of its more physically demanding jobs, and Campbell said they have developed a workflow that rotates workers through multiple tasks throughout the day so they’re not repeating the same motion over and over for the whole shift.

Addressing injuries

From a chiropractor’s perspective, Scott said that jobs are hardest on the body when they involve being in the same position throughout the entire work day.

The healthiest practice, he said, is for humans to have a good mixture of sitting, standing and lying down during a 24-hour period.

Too much sitting or standing or lifting can cause problems ranging from sprains to herniated disks. Scott said he addresses the immediate problem causing pain or limited movement, but also teaches the patients how to change their movement patterns at work.

Manufacturing and shipping aren’t the only physical jobs that causes injuries — Scott said he sees a lot of farmers. And working at a business like a tire shop can be particularly demanding because it combines lifting heavy tires and standing on hard concrete floors all day.

“It’s hard on your body,” he said.

Scott said when he sees people in physical jobs that are experiencing pain, often their job has built up certain muscles but overall they aren’t that healthy. They might be overweight, or eating a lot of junk food that increases inflammation, or not getting any cardio — all risk factors. Poor mental health can play a contributing role as well, he said.

Reversing those habits — through healthy eating, exercise and addressing mental health problems — can help people better manage or avoid job-related pain. And when that isn’t enough, Good Shepherd will continue recruiting providers who can provide other methods for treating injuries.

Reporter

East Oregonian and Hermiston Herald reporter covering city government and economic development in Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo.

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