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Here’s all you need to know about our SafeSpine™ program: An interview with Dr Sarah Curtis

construction workers stretching their backs

Why is injury so prevalent in construction? What is the most common cause?

The construction industry has remained a high-risk industry for some time due to the level of physical labour involved. It’s a combination of project demand, man-hours worked, workforce numbers, and the nature of the varying work onsite that contributes to the risk.

With the ever-evolving terrain and environment on job sites, employees must constantly be aware of their surroundings. The manual labour needed can sometimes put the body in awkward, unnatural positions and when push comes to shove you have to lift, push, and pull repetitively all day, it puts a lot of strain on the body, especially if the body has not been properly prepared.

What is the most common type of injury in construction/job sites?

In my experience it is definitely musculoskeletal. In the most recent report done by SafeWork Australia on our Workers’ Compensation rates, it found that 90% of serious claims were musculoskeletal and 10% diseases. Of the musculoskeletal claims, 43% were traumatic injuries to the joint, ligament, tendon, and muscles, followed by 16% made up of wounds, lacerations, etc.

The most common musculoskeletal injuries in construction are those in the back, followed by the shoulder, knees and ankles.

How can we eliminate or reduce this risk of injury on site?

We can’t eliminate the risk, but we can significantly reduce it. The key is education. We need to educate employees on how to look after their bodies whilst at work and at home.

It’s crucial to activate the muscles before any type of activity and warm the body up correctly. It’s also important to know that this needs to be an everyday routine, not just a one-off special event on site.

If companies want to reduce the risk of injury on site, they need to consider a strategy to educate their employees in injury prevention and the necessary steps needed to facilitate this culture change.

Laing O’rourke is a world-renowned engineering and construction company that we have been working with for close to ten years. During this time, we have worked with them on their health, wellbeing, and safety strategies to ensure a positive outcome for their projects.

What is SafeSpine™ exactly? What does the program involve?

SafeSpine™ is a behavioural change program that focuses on educating teams and staff members about musculoskeletal health. It specialises in injury prevention and injury reduction. SafeSpine™ is not restricted to injury prevention in the back. It is a full body program that reduces the amount of musculoskeletal injury incidents.

The program is implemented in three phases:

  • The customisation phase

    – SafeSpine™ specialist will spend time onsite with employees to gain a better understanding of their different job roles.

  • The implementation phase

    – All employees are initially inducted through the program via engaging and interactive small group workshops

  • The sustainability phase

    – This focuses on program compliance and cultural uptake

Is the program standardised, or is it customised depending on the industry/company?

Yes, the program is highly customised. We service diverse organisations – big and small, urban and rural – and we tailor our offerings to meet client needs. Our customer base is made up of both blue collar as well as white collar, so workshops and exercises and ongoing support differ depending on the tasks completed every day.

How much time during the working day does it take to implement SafeSpine™?

The prescribed injury prevention practices depend on the company and the site. But generally, the pre-start exercises take 5-15 minutes to complete. These are the exercises done in the morning, before starting a shift. Some companies require the exercises to be repeated again at 10:00 a.m. and at 2:00 p.m.

Then throughout the day, there is a ‘reset’, which is quick and easy to do, whenever the employee feels necessary.

What do you have in place to ensure the success and longevity of the program?

The injury prevention practices need to become second nature and part of everyone’s daily routine, so the program is designed with the aim to create positive culture within the workplace and ultimately a health- and safety-focused workplace.

The first strategy is through the education aspect of the program, which creates a need for a workplace culture shift.

It creates a positive outlook on the way that people see injury prevention. We don’t just teach employees the exercises; we educate them in why these are needed and why they work, without using too much scientific jargon. Our programs are backed by intensive research, and our on-site specialists are trained exercise physiologists. We believe that the dedication to perform the exercises comes through education on the topic.

The second strategy we use to ensure longevity of the program is through our sustainability phase.

This is very important. The aim of this phase is to ensure cultural uptake of the program on site. It guarantees long-term adoption and creates a positive, more engaged workforce.

Our specialists train a number of employees to become workplace leaders, or SafeSpine™ leaders. Their role will be to run the pre-start sessions in the morning. A lot of employees find it entertaining to run their own version of the session, which is great because it improves engagement levels when you’re listening to a mate or colleague. This strategy helps build and cement the company culture of safety.

Our site specialists will revisit the site at least every month, but this depends on the nature of the project. The sustainability visits are highly crucial and are beneficial in changing the workplace culture. It builds a rapport with the team, SafeSpine™ leaders, and the exercises needed every day.

Laing O’Rourke had a $1.95 billion road upgrade in Queensland, where 5,382 employees were involved. To ensure the success of the project and minimise the risk and incident of injuries, we had two full-time SafeSpine™ specialists on site for 22 months. We achieved over 60% reduction in medical treatment for injuries.

What are the benefits of the SafeSpine™ program for the organisation?

The benefits to the organisation come in many forms. The SafeSpine™ program saves the company money by reducing the amount of injuries on site and thus reducing the amount of workers’ claims for compensation. There are no hiccups or shortages of staff, and overtime, the company will see a statistical improvement in the number of injuries.

Immediately after the workshop clients see a change in morale and workplace culture. The program empowers employees with knowledge and creates a connection between their personal health and the workplace.

After implementing the SafeSpine™ program, companies can see:

  1. A reduction in the incidence and severity of soft tissue injuries
  2. A decrease in costs associated with workplace claims
  3. Enhanced site morale and team cohesion and an improvement in employee knowledge and awareness
  4. Improvement in perception of employee value
  5. A healthier, fitter, and safer workforce with greater productivity
  6. An excellent and proven track record with similar-sized organisations delivering services in an environmentally responsible manner

What are the benefits of the program for employees?

Employees need to protect themselves against injury in the immediate sense as well as chronic musculoskeletal injuries that can affect them for life. The SafeSpine™ program provides employees with valuable skills for life that they can take home and apply to their everyday routine. Whether it’s working in the garden or picking up their toddler, they are protected through education and re-enforcement. They are more aware on how to prevent injury and stay healthy.

In our projects, we like to measure the effectiveness on the program to employee. We asked 300 employees from a recent construction client to take a survey six months after the implementation of SafeSpine™ to gauge the cultural shift and benefits gained by the employee. Here are our findings.

  • 94% of employees report that the SafeSpine™ program has been personally beneficial to them
  • 85% of employees feel that the culture on site has been influenced positively since SafeSpine™ has commenced on site.
  • 67% of employees feel very valued since the company implemented the SafeSpine™ program

Does the SafeSpine™ program have any proven statistics?

SafeSpine™ has been developed from clinical evidence- and statistical-based research with proven, positive, and measurable results.

  • Laing O’Rourke

    • Rail – Port Hedland, WA: 89% reduction in back injuries
    • MUR, NSW 2013-2015: 6,941 staff trained in SafeSpine™, only 2 musculoskeletal injuries in 2.5 years
  • BHPBilliton

    • IronOre, WA: 60.38% reduction in back and neck injuries across >4,000 strong construction workforce (externally university researched)
  • Peabody

    • Metrop Mine: 70% reduction in manual handling injuries involving the back
  • Jetstar (2013-2015)

    • An average total recordable injuries (TRIs) reduction of 22% after SafeSpine™

About the Interviewees:

Dr Sarah Curtis, PhD has worked in the health and wellbeing arena for 25 years and has vast expertise in developing, implementing and managing health solutions for clients from small and medium enterprises, government, blue collar and blue-chip organisations. With a Masters in Nutritional Science and a Doctorate in Obesity Metabolism Sarah is passionate about the business of health and general wellbeing and is dedicated to making a difference to people’s lives.

Jenna Neivandt is an accredited exercise physiologist and has been working for SafeSpine™ as a site specialist for 5 years.