Industrial Athletes: Maximising Safety and Productivity

Industrial Athletes: Maximising Safety and Productivity

When we hear the term ‘athlete’, it is often associated with sports and someone who excels in their chosen activity. It’s no surprise that the Cambridge Dictionary defines an athlete as “a person who is very good at sports or physical exercise, particularly one who competes in organised events”. Similarly, the American Heart Association defines it as “one who participates in organised team or individual sports that require regular competition against others as a core component and places a high value on excellence and achievement, requiring some form of systematic training (usually intense).” While these terms are most recognised in sports, over the past decade there’s been a growing trend towards the concept of an ‘industrial athlete’ being considered more widely, especially in the health and safety sector. When we consider this, it makes sense. Those working in industrial sectors are facing physically demanding tasks daily: exerting themselves for no less than six to eight hours a day, committed to providing maximum output and often excelling and becoming experts in their roles. In this guide, we explore the concept of an ‘industrial athlete’ and why it’s important for organisations to begin shifting their mindsets. Understanding the physical and mental demands workers are faced with, rather than treating them as pure producers of goods and/or services, will enhance safety and maximise productivity.

What is an industrial athlete?

Why are industrial athletes important in the workplace?

The importance of physical training and conditioning

Common injuries and their prevention

Nutrition and hydration

Mental challenges and resilience strategies

Rest and recovery

Conclusion


What is an industrial athlete?

Skilled workers who engage in physically demanding tasks within industrial settings can be considered industrial athletes. We often underestimate the strength, agility and precision employees must bring daily. They operate in hazardous and challenging environments where productivity is crucial, while maintaining safety standards that can mean the difference between an injury or a serious accident, resembling athletes on a competitive field. Whether handling heavy machinery, navigating intricate assembly lines or executing accurate technical manoeuvres, industrial athletes require a combination of physical strength and mental focus to ensure optimal performance while minimising the risks of workplace injuries. It may not be as obvious but, once considered, many parallels can be highlighted between traditional athletes and those in industrial settings. Traditional athletes undertake intensive training and are provided with the tools they require so they can meet the physical demands of their sport. While the industrial athlete performs various demanding tasks that require stamina and endurance for long periods of time, new starters don’t get the luxury of such programmes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, new workers are five times more likely to be injured on the job than more experienced employees. One in eight injuries happen on an employee’s first day on the job. This highlights the importance of comprehensive training programmes and acclimatisation considerations to foster a culture that prioritises both the well-being and efficiency required in the industrial landscape. 


Why are industrial athletes important in the workplace?

People are the most important asset in any organisation. They get the job done so that organisations can deliver the products or services required of them. These professionals face challenges that rival traditional athletes, working in situations where precision and split-second decision-making are critical. Consider a technician who has been called out on an emergency to clean up an oil spill. These can often be in remote locations where temperatures frequently exceed 37.8°C / 100°F. This is only taking into account external temperatures and doesn’t factor in the core body temperature (CBT) of the worker who is wearing heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) and is required to perform physically demanding tasks. This could include lifting objects and operating machinery while performing repetitive tasks for hours. Emphasising the importance of physical training and conditioning, as a coach would for the traditional athlete, is paramount in enhancing the resilience of the industrial athletes, fostering agility and mitigating the risks associated with workplace injuries. Such activities require the ability to focus on the tasks at hand, injury prevention and overall well-being. By acknowledging and addressing the multifaceted demands of their roles, employers not only prioritise the safety and health of their workforce but also contribute to heightened productivity and job satisfaction.


The importance of physical training and conditioning

Studies have consistently shown that incorporating regular physical activity programmes for industrial workers leads to a significant reduction in work-related injuries. According to an article in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, companies with comprehensive workplace wellness programmes, including physical training components, experienced a 53% reduction in recordable injury rates among employees.

Moreover, investing in physical training programmes can yield substantial returns for employers. The International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans reports that most organisations in North America save $1 to $3 in their overall healthcare costs for every dollar invested in workplace wellness programmes. These savings are the results of direct costs, such as compensation claims, and indirect costs, including reduced absenteeism, and increased productivity. 

Additionally, a survey conducted by UnitedHealthcare found that 56% of employees who participated in regular physical activity programmes had fewer sick days. Furthermore, physical training and conditioning can mitigate the economic burden of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). For the years 1992–2010 musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accounted for 29–35% of all occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work in the United States. However, a review published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation concluded that there’s strong evidence to indicate workplace-based physical activity, such as strength training, can have a positive effect on reducing the prevalence of MSDs, highlighting the effectiveness of such programmes in preventing these debilitating conditions.


Common injuries and their prevention

Working in industrial environments can be demanding and take a toll on the body. Like traditional athletes, industrial athletes face many common injuries that can hinder both their safety and productivity. Strains, sprains and MSDs can arise from repetitive tasks, heavy lifting or prolonged periods of physical exertion. To mitigate these risks, implementing ergonomic workstations, regular stretching programmes and proper lifting techniques becomes paramount. 

While these types of injuries can be more obvious, many other workplace risks are underestimated. Extreme heat kills more people in the US each year than any other natural hazard or extreme weather event. Environmental heat is estimated to be responsible for 170,000 work-related injuries every year, with up to 2,000 fatalities every year. Across the world in Australia, similar statistics highlight the challenges extreme temperatures present, with heatwaves claiming more Australian lives than any other natural threat. When exposed to higher temperatures, excess heat is stored in the body. This hinders the body’s ability to effectively regulate its internal temperature by getting rid of the excess heat, which results in heat stress. This poses many risks as physical and mental capabilities are compromised, which results in decreased productivity, increased errors and injuries on the job. Such injuries highlight the need for proficient training, especially for new employees who are yet to acclimatise to industries that require exposure to hot environments.

As industrial athletes are required to perform physical activities over extended periods of time, the risk of fatigue-induced incidents increases significantly. Research shows 13% of workplace injuries can be attributed to fatigue, with an estimated cost to employers equating to $136 billion in health-related productivity losses annually. While these types of incidents may have been a challenge for organisations to manage and track in the past, the evolution of smart safety technology is changing the game. A solution such as Bodytrak®, is now providing organisations with accurate physiological monitoring and real-time data analysis to alert both workers and supervisors to enable intervention before an incident occurs. Like a sports athlete who would wear a smartwatch to track their performance and vitals, organisations can now provide a wearable safety solution for their industrial athletes, keeping them safe. Bodytrak has been designed so the industrial athlete can continue with their required tasks while donning existing PPE without any interference. Users forget they’re wearing the Bodytrak device as the solution only kicks in when the wearer is at risk. What’s more, in an environment where the difference between an injury or fatality is seconds, Bodytrak provides the data in real time, with heart rate data showing a mean absolute error of 2.87 beats per minute, exceeding the accuracy of other consumer wearables on the market. Similarly, CBT data captured by Bodytrak shows a mean absolute error of 0.18°C compared to a gold-standard gastrointestinal pill, making it one of the most reliable indicators for heat stress in industrial settings.


Nutrition and hydration

Studies highlight that eating an unhealthy diet is linked to a 66% increased risk of reduced workplace productivity. While nutrition is a big consideration in a traditional athlete’s programme, it’s important to understand the influence on performance it can have on an industrial athlete. Adequate nutrition plays a pivotal role in protecting the body against injuries, as a well-balanced diet supports muscle strength and overall resilience. Poor nutrition can significantly impact cognitive performance. When people don’t fuel the brain with the right nutrients, it can lead to problems with memory, fatigue and the inability to focus for extended periods of time. In addition to reduced productivity, a diet that lacks nutritional value is also linked to a variety of serious health problems including obesity, diabetes and chronic heart diseases.

At the same time, maintaining optimal hydration levels is essential for sustained performance and injury prevention, particularly in environments where physical demands and perspiration rates are elevated. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers should be encouraged to drink at least one cup (8 ounces) of water every 20 minutes while working in the heat. Electrolytes, commonly found in sports drinks, should be consumed by industrial athletes in jobs that last more than two hours to ensure they can replace the salts lost through sweat. Substantial loss of electrolytes can cause muscle cramps and other dangerous health problems, which is why hydration with water and other fluids is critical. By prioritising preventive measures such as nutritional support, and hydration strategies, industrial athletes can enhance their well-being, minimise injury occurrences and optimise productivity, contributing to a safer and more efficient work environment.


Mental challenges and resilience strategies

From longer shifts to increased demands, the industrial athlete isn’t faced with just physical challenges but combatting many formidable mental hurdles. The cognitive demands of problem-solving, decision-making and maintaining heightened vigilance can lead to mental fatigue, stress and burnout. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It’s characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or fatigue, increased mental distance or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. While mental challenges can lead to severe consequences, organisations can overcome them. By encouraging mindfulness practices and incorporating effective resilience strategies, organisations can help safeguard the mental well-being of their industrial athletes. 

Factors to consider when building resilient industrial athletes include understanding the workers and leadership buy-in. An industrial athlete who is supported, motivated and equipped with the right tools is confidently positioned to overcome obstacles and distractions. It’s important to understand that building a resilient team and workplace culture with safety at the core is a holistic approach. Workers are more likely to become engaged and comply when the organisation’s leadership team is also involved and takes constructive feedback on board.


Rest and recovery

Prioritising adequate rest and recovery is indispensable to mitigate the risk of physical and mental fatigue and burnout. Just as physical recovery is essential for optimal performance, mental rejuvenation through sufficient sleep, relaxation techniques and a healthy work-life balance is crucial to enable industrial athletes to navigate the intricate mental landscapes of their roles, ensuring both safety and productivity are maximised.


Conclusion

There’s no doubt that the concept of the ‘industrial athlete’ presents a profound shift in how organisations perceive and support workers in physically demanding industrial settings. By likening their roles to those of traditional athletes, we acknowledge the rigorous physical and mental demands they face daily. Investing in physical training and wearable safety technology such as Bodytrak not only minimises workplace injuries but also enhances productivity, yielding significant returns for employers. Prioritising preventive measures such as proper nutrition, hydration and mental resilience strategies ensures workers’ well-being and minimises injury occurrences. Acknowledging the importance of rest and recovery is paramount in mitigating fatigue and burnout among industrial athletes. It is evident that understanding and embracing this notion of the industrial athlete not only fosters a culture of safety but also unlocks the potential for enhanced productivity and overall well-being within organisations.

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