If you’re of a certain age, you may remember “The Mod Squad,” that late ’60s/early ’70s television show where three hip outsiders fight bad guys who prey on other kids. Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington and Williston has its own version of Pete, Linc and Julie. Instead of infiltrating the counterculture to expose crime, the company’s “Bod Squad” investigates and eliminates silent villains who rob employees of their health and well-being: poor posture and ill-fitting equipment. They also teach employees how to counter the effects of repetitive motion.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that injuries from repetitive tasks account for more than half of all occupational illnesses in the United States. While the Vermont Department of Labor does not keep data on employer-provided programs to counter those injuries, interest in keeping employees healthy and fit has increased during the past decade, says Scott Meyer, program manager for the labor department’s Project WorkSAFE, which provides free ergonomic risk assessments to employers. Meyer attributes the heightened interest to the rising costs of medical insurance and a better understanding of the relationship between employee wellness and productivity. Last year, 78 Vermont employers, including Gardener’s Supply, received awards for their work-site wellness programs from the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
The trick is nipping problems in the bud. Gardener’s Supply employees spend their days doing the same things over and over, from reaching for phones and typing orders in the Burlington call center to lifting bags and packing boxes in the Essex Junction distribution center. Like many modern workers with desk-bound and repetitive-motion jobs, they are prone to pains in the neck, back and shoulders. But, rather than waiting for injuries to strike, the company takes proactive measures.
Gardener’s provides training to about six Bod Squad volunteers in basic body mechanics and ergonomics — the science of designing a work space and equipment to fit a worker. The squad members learn to assess posture and determine correct heights for screens and keyboards. With this knowledge, they adjust chairs, rearrange desktops and show coworkers how to sit properly. They demonstrate stretches to refresh overused muscles and, when necessary, call in professional physical therapists.
Human resources generalist Kit Howe created the Bod Squad in 2004 to address what she saw as a potential problem at the call center. Workers sit continuously in front of computer screens, reaching for phones about 40 times a day. If employees’ phones are a long reach, their screens too high or they slouch, stiffness and pain result.
“People are often so focused on their task, they don’t realize they could be in a more comfortable position at their workstation,” Howe explains. “The philosophy is to get in there early, because we can prevent and treat injuries that develop slowly over time. We can avoid a worker’s-comp claim.”
Even pain that originates outside the workplace is cause for concern. “We don’t care if an injury is from work or not,” Howe says. “If you’re sore, it affects your work.”
The squad assists new hires, employees who change workstations and anyone who calls for help by submitting an “Ergo Alert” form. About 20 such requests come in each year, says squad member Sue Tracy. Also a human resources generalist, she understands the importance of keeping employees comfortable. Tracy encourages staff to take stretch and strength breaks using company-supplied Thera-Bands — colorful latex strips used for exercise.
Those stretches and adjustments had a dramatic effect on Maree Gaetani, 48. As public relations director, she spends a lot of time sitting while writing and talking on the phone. A herniated disk, the result of a car accident years earlier, gave Gaetani discomfort in her back that began as soon as she sat down and stayed with her all day.
“The pain would radiate up my back and down my arm,” she recalls. It broke her concentration. But even worse, Gaetani says, it prevented her from being active after work. She was too sore to ski, hike or swim. “The pain was so bad at the end of the workday that I couldn’t go out and do anything,” she says. “It was very frustrating.”
After eight months of this, Gaetani called the Bod Squad. “They measured my desk and how far my arm was from my phone,” she relates. “They changed the height of my keyboard and computer screen, got me a new phone cord and headset, and changed my chair position so I don’t have to reach a lot to get to stuff on my desk.”
It worked. Gaetani’s sharp pains disappeared, and a new routine of frequent stretching keeps her limber. Several times a day she takes a few minutes to stand, lift her arms overhead, shrug her shoulders and do yoga-style lunges to release her lower back muscles.
Given the pain Gaetani was experiencing, why did she take so long to call the Bod Squad? She thinks her waiting was not unusual. “Everybody knows you’re supposed to have your keyboard at a certain height and all that, but you’re so busy you don’t get to it,” she says. “To have someone come in and give me personal attention made it easy to get my office in good shape.”
Gardener’s also urges warehouse staff to keep fit at work. At daily crew meetings, 20 or more people do stretches together in the distribution center break room. Some exercises imitate motions they perform while working, such as lifting and reaching. Others stretch body parts in an opposite direction from their movement on the job, such as bending wrists back to alleviate the strains of repetitive folding and taping, or rolling the neck to counter the effects of bending over boxes.
The stretch routine takes about 15 minutes, explains Bridget Kane, a fulfillment manager who leads exercises for the day shift. “We get into the fog of cardboard here, packing boxes on automated runs,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t realize how stiff you are until you start stretching.”
Kane is grateful that her employer allocates time for exercise. “Instead of waiting for people to come in with sore muscles that might keep them from working, they encourage us to stretch as preventative maintenance,” she says. “Clearly, it makes up for the [time] we spend stretching.”
While Kit Howe can’t quantify the savings from stretching and Bod Squad intervention, she maintains that arming employees with self-care skills benefits the entire company. “We are employee owned. Any costs for medical insurance and worker’s compensation come out of our own pockets,” she notes. “It makes sense to care for ourselves and each other. Everything is going to run better that way.”