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Driving Shouldn’t Be a Pain

September 21, 2021 Ryan Boyce

Doctor wrapping patient's wrist

In a previous post, we explained how your employees should set up their workstations to avoid injuries to the neck, wrists, legs, feet, shoulders, and back. Sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle for long stretches can cause similar aches and pains—collectively called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

MSDs might not be serious enough to keep employees from working, but they have a reputation for getting worse with time. When they do, they undermine productivity and inflate your operating costs.

$54 billion problem

  • MSDs account for 29 to 35 percent of injuries that cause employees to miss work.
  • Employees who suffer MSDs typically need more than a week off work for treatment and recovery.
  • One dollar to every three dollars spent on workers' compensation stems from insufficient ergonomic protection.
  • The direct costs of MSDs tally $15 to $20 billion per year, and your workers’ compensation provider usually covers those direct costs. When you consider employer-covered indirect costs such as lost productivity, the bill comes to $45 to $54 billion.

Ergonomics: The science of accommodating differences

Our bodies are different shapes and sizes. We also bring varying ages, fitness levels, and medical histories to the job. Ergonomics is the science of making work fit employees, not the other way around.

Let’s say the basketball coach stands six feet, five inches tall. By contrast, the new football coach registers a less-imposing five feet, eight inches. If these two co-workers share a desk in the athletic offices, the basketball coach will have to adjust the chair and computer monitor, at minimum, to fit his frame. If they share a pool car or passenger van, they’ll make similar adjustments to the seats, steering wheel, and mirrors. Simply put, ergonomics is about accommodating employees’ differences.

3 tips for controlling MSDs

Bus drivers, maintenance employees who handle heavy machinery, and anyone else who operates a vehicle on school business is at risk of MSDs. If you include these best practices in your driver safety program, you can cut the risk of injuries and the costly claims that often come with them.

1. Set yourself up for success

The automotive industry makes it easy for drivers to raise, recline, and tilt their way to a comfortable, MSD-free trip.

Headrest. A properly adjusted headrest sits somewhere between the top of your ears and the top of your head. To reduce the risk of whiplash if you are rear-eneded, adjust the headrest horizontally no more than four inches from your head, lock it in position.

Seat height. Make sure you can see clearly over the stearing wheel. Reduce pressure on your lower back by making sure your hips are slightly higher than your knees.

Seat forward/backward. Position yourself so you can reach the pedals without your back leaving the seat. The steering wheel should be between 10 and 12 inches from your chest. The backs of your knees are hotspots for sensitive nerves. Keep blood flowing by maintaining a two-to-three-inch gap between your knees and the front of the seat.

Back tilt. Long trips can be tough on your back. Slightly recline the seat back, and keep your tailbone as close to it as possible.

Lumbar support. If the vehicle has lumbar support, adjust it so you feel even pressure across your back. A lumbar pillow or rolled up towel in the curve of your lower back can give you the extra support you need.

Soft pillow. If the seat is hard, consider sitting on a soft pillow to help:

  1. Cut pressure on the thighs and buttocks
  2. Prevent nerve compression in the back of the thigh, which can cause tingling and numbness in the lower legs and feet
  3. Decrease road vibrations

If you have lower-spine issues, a soft pillow might not deliver the support you need. Ask your doctor for guidance.

Mirrors. Adjust the mirrors last. If they are set up correctly, you will be able to see them without craning your neck.

2. Watch your posture

Poor posture can cause or aggravate MSDs, as well as increase your injury risk in an accident. Correctly adjusting your headrest, seat, and mirrors helps you maintain good posture. Here are a few other helpful hacks:

  • Take your wallet out of your back pocket. The fuller it is, the more likely it is to compromise your posture.
  • Don’t rest your arm on the door or console.
  • Avoid using your laptop in the car. If you can’t avoid it, pull over to a safe place, and keep the laptop with you in the driver’s seat. If you put it in the passenger seat, you have to twist your body.
  • Position your hands at 9 and 3 o’clock on the steering wheel, and bend your arms slightly.
  • Keep your left foot flat on the floor and on the footrest unless you’re using the clutch.

3. Move your body

So, if you maintain perfect posture behind the wheel, you’re in the clear, right? Not necessarily. Sitting, even with good posture, restricts blood flow and contributes to muscle tension. Follow these tips to keep your body road ready during long trips:

  • Embrace micro-movements. Texting, eating, and grooming are off limits when you’re behind the wheel. You do have the green light to relieve tired muscles and tendons by shifting your weight, rolling your neck and shoulders, and breathing deeply. At red lights, take advantage of the opportunity to move your arms, head, shoulders, and legs.
  • Take breaks. Stop at least hourly, get out of the vehicle, and walk around.  
  • Stretch. Shoulder shrugs, wrist rotations, and hamstring and calf stretches prepares the body for driving. Stretching during breaks also relieves tired muscles and tendons.

Lean on the Fund

Transportation staff, maintenance employees, administrators, and anyone else who operates a vehicle is at risk of MSDs. An investment in ergonomics is an investment in your team and your bottom line.

Effective ergonomics programs include employee wellness strategies, driver evaluations, and regular training for drivers and supervisors. Reach out to your TASB risk solutions consultant for help building an ergonomics program or improving an existing program.

About the author

Ryan Boyce holds a master's in public health and a Certified Clinical Behavioral-Based Ergonomic Specialist designation. He has more than a decade of experience in corporate environmental health and safety with a specialization in repetitive stress injury prevention and wellness.

Tagged: Auto, "employee safety"