Dynamic Chiropractic - September 21, 1998, Volume 16, Issue 20

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Why Micro-Breaks?

Scott Bautch, DC, DACBOH and Steven Conway, DC, DACBOH, JD

In the last 30 years, there has been a shift in industrial work from multiple tasks to single tasks with increased repetition. Many industries are attempting to decrease human injuries through automation. Go through any new industry and you will see multiple robots or computer-driven machines that are performing a multitude of tasks. With the mixing of machine and man on the assembly line, the machine from the outside may appear to reduce the stress on the human frame; however, the results are generally the opposite. The jobs left to human performance generally cause more stress by increasing the repetitions of performing the same task over and over.

Statistics are showing us that man is a poor repetitive motion machine. The human body performs better when multiple body parts are being used in a task, rather than when performing a specific motion over and over. In baseball, for example, each position requires different degrees of motion and different requirements for rest. The third baseman needs little rest between games, while the pitcher may not be able to finish one game and needs 3-4 days rest before pitching again.

We now have more and more "pitchers" in industry, but allow breaks for them as if they were "third basemen." The meat processing industries are a key example of what is happening overall in jobs. Over the last 10 years, the number of carcasses processed per hour has risen from approximately 80 per hour to 180 per hour. Before the changes, each worker would make multiple, angled cuts on each carcass which involved using different muscles. But with the speed increase, each worker was reduced to making a single cut on each carcass. The worker now makes the same cut over and over again using the same muscles, which makes for less recovery time for those muscles. Not only has the work performed been turned into a "pitcher" with stress on less body parts, but the time between pitches has decreased, causing less recovery time.

After walking through hundreds of manufacturing facilities, it has often been asserted to us by companies that they have decreased the physical stress on the workers by having part of the manufacturing process performed by machines. They point out how little effort the workers have to exert, as evidenced by the lack of motion while performing the tasks, i.e., having to move only the right arm instead of multiple body parts.

Industrial engineers familiar with manufacturing and job flow have attempted to equate the uses and functions of machines and robots with the human body. With machines, the fewer motions or moving‘ likely to break down. But this same concept applied to the human body is devastating. With people, the goal is to have them use several body parts and diverse motions, thereby spreading "stress" throughout the human frame, which is much better than singular stress in one area.

Industry is going in the wrong direction. People do not make the whole "widget" anymore, and are not doing multiple tasks that involve multiple motions. They now only make part of the "widget" and use singular tasks and motions. It is no surprise that the number of injuries and costs associated with industrial injuries continue to double despite the best efforts to take stress away from the whole body by using machines.

This trend is not going to stop. The chiropractic industrial consultant needs to provide solutions to assist in decreasing the human injuries from repetitive motion injuries. One such solution is to introduce micro-breaks and micro-stretches into the daily routine of each individual worker. There are multiple stretching programs out there, but most don't work. The major problem with generic stretching programs is basically that they try to fit one stretch for everyone. Similar to the one-size-fits-all glove that fits no one, generic stretches will fit, but not as well as individual stretches. If you look at most production lines, there will be people of all shapes and sizes working side by side. Generic stretches assist in getting the total body in motion and are very positive, but to move to the next level, you need to do an analysis of the job site and individual worker to find the most optimum stretch for a person.

Most industries have set break times of 15 minutes, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. If the worker is using multiple body parts, these types of breaks are very useful; if not, the worker will also need "micro-breaks," short rest periods designed to only take seconds, but taken many times throughout the day to prevent overuse injuries.

This system will provide the needed rest cycles for the body part to recover and decrease the chance of injury. Realize that workers can condition the tissues like an athlete to perform with less rest, but all tissue has a failure point and the idea is to keep the tissues under their failure points to prevent injuries.

Start your consulting with an analysis of the employee's job requirements and then see if a micro-break and micro-stretch program is a viable solution. Begin with generic stretching programs with the goal of moving into individual programs. Take it in workable steps to ensure success. Good luck!

Scott Bautch, DC, DACBOH
Wausau, Wisconsin

Janesville, Wisconsin