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Implementing Effective Stretching Programs to Reduce Injuries with Patte Ackermann

Implementing effective stretching programs to reduce injuries

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Patte Ackerman joins us on the podcast this week to discuss the many benefits of implementing effective stretching programs in the workplace. Tune in as she shares the life-changing effects just seven minutes of stretching can produce and the need for safety leaders to embrace and champion stretching at work. After all, studies have shown that stretching improves coordination and balance, increases blood flow, and makes us happier!

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C suite, it is a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safe legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I am very excited to have Patte Ackermann with me. Patte is an industrial physical therapist who has done incredible work across multiple organizations to help reduce injuries, predominantly by implementing Ergonomic programs. We will get into a lot of the details very soon. Based out of St. Louis, Missouri, Patte, welcome to the show. 

Thank you for having me. I am happy to be here. 

Excellent. So, Patte, why do not we kick off by sharing a little bit about what got you into industrial stretching programs and maybe some of your backgrounds? 

I am a physical therapist and got into physical therapy after getting a degree in physical therapy, physical education, and corporate fitness. So, I was exploring, trying to make workplaces healthier and happier, but I was not getting enough education that I needed. So, then I went to physical therapy school where I got my physical therapy and my psychology degrees. And I say that every day. I use my physical therapy, psychology, and injury prevention physical education degrees as I try to help companies. So, in my first job initially out of college, I worked in a traditional physical therapy setting to start off my career. And then I saw an ad it said, physical therapist, would you like to work with healthy workforces, keeping them healthier, helping them try to stay out of the physical therapy clinics? And that job was made for me, and I have been doing that for 31 years now. So as a physical therapist, as an industrial physical therapist, I spent part of my time treating injured workers and doing physical therapy. But I only do it at job sites, which allows me to use the tools of people’s industry in their rehabilitation. So, if somebody is a forklift operator, probably in rehabilitation, we’ll be climbing on and off of forklifts. 

If somebody uses a sledgehammer throughout their normal days, we are going to be using a sledgehammer in physical therapy. So, it made me really functional minded treating patients like this, which led me to what I do most of the time, which is injury prevention.

Right. One of the things I want to touch on is stretching programs. I have seen them being incredibly beneficial, predominantly in industries like in construction where it gets implemented, utilities on the construction side of the utility side. But let us talk about who really needs stretching programs and why. It is really important to start really thinking about that as part of your safety programs.

I am glad you asked. Stretch programs are probably what I do the most with injury prevention. And people ask me, who is the appropriate candidate for a stretching program? And I say anybody who has a physically demanding job, which is all of us. If somebody sits all day, that is hard on your body. So even somebody who sits all day in an office space can benefit from a stretching program. So, I do stretch programs with office workers, construction workers, people in manufacturing, and public utilities, along with any kinds of jobs that people have because everybody’s bodies are in harm’s way. And I think stretching can help them reduce the discomfort that they encounter on a regular basis.

Yeah, absolutely. There are some industries that need more you mentioned a lot of people have demanding jobs. Construction is where I have seen this the most embedded, but it’s not the only demanding job. There are demanding jobs in manufacturing and all sorts of different sectors. So, what would trigger an organization to say, let us look at this? 

Well, I get the phone calls when a company has an increase in musculoskeletal injuries, and it might be on any body part, or when people are expressing discomfort, they’re not having the injuries, but they’re saying, you know what, my body is getting tired throughout the workday.

Sure. 

And that is when I usually get a call like, hey, Patte, what can you do to help us remain more comfortable both on and off the job? Yes, construction is very well known now for doing stretch programs. And one of the reasons it is so well known is it’s a captured workplace. So, everybody starts at the same place on a construction C-suite, and so that is why it’s easier there. But in manufacturing, we can have people starting in the same place too. And I do like the group stretch programs, so those are some of the most physically demanding, the construction sites and manufacturing. 

How does stretching really help? And what are some of the things that you should be looking for in terms of a good stretching program for the work site? 

So that is a bunch of questions. So, stretching, how does it help? The main thing that I think stretching helps us do, and this is whether you’re Patte, celebrating her weekend or somebody who’s about to use a jackhammer, stretching lets your body know you’re going from a period of inactivity, driving into work, laying down in bed, to activity, the physical demands of your day without undue force. So let your body know, whoops, let us stop working on digestion. Let us stop working on revitalizing ourselves. We need that blood flow to be working with the muscles. And it lets your body know that you are about to start doing some activity. Stretching helps benefit by improving our coordination and balance. It feels good. It increases blood flow. It can warm us up. And as studies are showing now, this is one of the things that I’m using a lot right now. Stretching makes us happy because when you stretch, you release endorphins in your brain, and endorphins are those happy drugs in our brains. So, stretching can also make you happy. And believe me, I tell everybody that they need to stretch in order to be happier. It works for me. 

And one of the things that I have seen in certain organizations, some of them has really high engagement and high involvement of the workforce around stretching. And in other organizations, it is really a long haul. People do not really want to do it. It feels forced. What have you seen over the years that gives employees, first and foremost, want to do it to get excited about doing starters or starting stretches in the morning?

Well, some of the things that I found successful in getting better employee engagement is before I start a program, I ask the employees, hey, where do you feel discomfort throughout your workday? What body parts feel tired when you get home? What hurts throughout the day? What hurts? And I use the information that they share with me. Maybe they say, my feet hurt. And Eric. It is always surprising. The person, the supervisor who hires me, they are like, oh, everybody’s planning about shoulders. And I will show up there and people will say, it is my feet, it is my back. Like, it is never just one body part. And some people will say, my feet hurt throughout the day. And based on the information that I’m getting from the workers, I’ll ask them, oh, your feet hurt? Does this stretch feel good? And I will show them a stretch, and usually, it is a stretch, it feels pretty good. And I will show them the stretch and ask them to try it. And if they report that it helps with their discomfort, that will be one of the stretches that we use in that company-specific stretch program. So, when I come back out and show them the stretches, they know that the information that I have gathered has come from the work.

They have been telling me; that this is where we feel discomfort. And then they have helped me determine which stretches are going to be best for that workforce. So, getting employee engagement is very important. Listening to the workers is very important. Not just showing up with a canned program. I really like to do a specific stretch program for that company, that shift, that group, that job title. And that is one of the things. Longevity is a big mystery. The enthusiasm of whom they work with, whom they bring in, and the skill set of whom they bring in, is of course important. But really, if the supervisor does not believe in the program, I think it is going to be really hard to get the workers to believe in the program. The workers will know if the supervisor is finding the stretch program to be an inconvenience and what interests my boss fascinates me. We have heard that saying. And if the boss is looking at their watch the whole time that they are doing the stretching or saying, okay, it is time to stretch, let us get this over with, that is the message that the workers are going to hear. But if the supervisor goes out there and says, all right, everybody, it is time to do our search program, let us get our day going to a good beat, and that is the message that they’ll hear, and they’ll hear support for it. 

I think that’s a very important point because where I’ve seen this work really well is the leader is jumping in, is taking part in it, is showing this is important in some cases that leaders, leader also showing up, and maybe it’s even only once or twice in a week coming in, taking part in the stretch, maybe making it fun, bringing music. I think that is an element that I’ve seen over, and all be critically important because as you said, where the leader doesn’t show up, the leader feels like a drag. Where he is not willing to check in with the team member who is not taking part in the stretch, it is likely not going to survive very long. 

They know what is going on, the people who are participating in the program, they know if their supervisors getting upset with them, or if the supervisor is happy with the performance that they are giving, and they will respond in kind. And if it is a company that has frequently started and stopped programs, the participants are going to be concerned about longevity. And sometimes if it is a company that started and stopped programs, I have had the workers say, how do we know that they are not going to take this away from us again? And that is when it becomes my responsibility to say to the supervisors, they are worried about longevity, they want to perform this, they want to do the stretching, but they are worried you’re going to take it away from them. And I try to get some assurances from them and ways that we can get assurances if they bring the flex and stretch instructor back to update the program, to assess the program, to encourage the program. That is one way of ensuring a little bit of longevity. Because if they want to bring the person back, that means that they believe in it and they see if they are scheduling the person to come back in a month, they know that the program is still going to be going for a month. 

So, it’s just some of these little things that can help make sense.

One of the things that I am curious, I love your comment about making it very customized to that workplace, the type of work that people are doing, to the aches and pains that maybe people there are seeing when you talked about even customized to a shift. I think those are important pieces. So, it feels like our stretch. Any thoughts on programs that take it even further? Because some programs go all the way to Patte. This is your stretch, john, this is your stretch and each one is different because I have definitely seen some value in the whole group doing something similar. Any perspectives around which approach works best? And what is the level of customization you want? 

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Well, I could make a commercial for each one of those and obviously, the one-on-one training is going to be an amazing program and you are probably going to get really good support from the participants in it. It is like, oh, they noticed that my shoulders stiffer on the right, so they gave me a specific shoulder stretch to be doing and that is awesome. It is a little bit more challenging to manage. And so, if management is going to get frustrated with trying to manage the specific program, that is when it could be better to do a big group program. But just making sure. Sometimes I will throw in with the front of a thigh stretch. Some of people can stand on one leg and hold the ankle all the way up to the foot. I mean, hold the ankle all the way up to the buttock as they stand up. And others cannot do that, but they might just do a little bit of a standing butt kick because it depends on people’s individual range of motion and balance. So, we can offer alternatives and make it a little bit specific. So yes, individualized exercise programs are fantastic but more challenging to manage. 

Makes sense. You talked about something as well that kind of caught my curiosity in terms of office workers because it definitely is a lot of strain sitting in a chair an entire day. But I’ve never seen an office environment do formalize stretching programs. What would you do to get people bought into this in an office context? 

So usually, it is pretty easy. Well, if I can get a ringleader, if I could get someone, what I need is a partner. And that partner must be able to say, hey everybody, it’s 820, let’s do our stretch time. And that is it. Every office worker complains about having to sit for a long time, and how exhausting it is. I never get up and move about. And if we custom makes a stretch program for the office workers, that will allow them to stretch their entire body in a few minutes in their work clothes with the group, it will probably improve morale, it will probably improve their range of motion, it will probably decrease their discomfort and maybe even prolong their life because prolonged sitting is hard on us. And then usually with a desk size program, an office worker stretch program whatever you want to call it. We will be upper extremity specific. We will show them some stretches for their hands, wrist, and forearms and stretches that they can do while they are still sitting because sometimes, they cannot get up and move about. And I will show them some stretches that they can control and do on their own. 

So, it will be a little bit of each, it will be a little bit of a stretch program that they will stand up and do as a group, which is ideal and it’s more fun and they’ll get to giggle together a little bit and some individualized one for them to be doing throughout the day. 

Love it. I think it’s another piece where if you’ve got a stretching program for frontline workers in a field environment, in a field environment, or in a manufacturing environment, you can have a program there, but maybe you can extend that same reach to start bringing safety to people working in an office and getting them to reflect on how they sit every day. Love that part. 

And how their jobs are physically demanding as well. 

Absolutely. So how do you know how effective a program like this is? What are some of the anecdotes, the stories that you have seen that make it successful? 

So, I love your question because I get to talk a little bit about some of the successes I have had. The best way to measure the success of a program is when the people are performing the stretches. First off, if they are doing it every day, if I get a phone call saying, hey, we are getting sick of the stretches you are showing us, that means that they are doing them enough for getting with the stretches. And that is the best phone call I can get. If people are saying I feel better, I feel better for doing these stretches, I love the stretch program. Hey, I have been doing those stretches every day and it felt so good that after work I went for a walk. Well, that is a way that I know that I am really impacting their overall health and wellbeing. There are ways that management can ensure and assess program effectiveness. Some companies go as far as to do the measurement, testing, testing people’s hamstring length, and shoulder range of motion at the beginning of the program and maybe six months later and see if they’ve had an actual increase in range of motion of these muscle groups. So that is a way of measuring effectiveness. 

Some groups do auditing, and you can objectively measure what percentage of people are doing the stretches, what percentage of the people are doing them correctly, how much coaching is the leader giving, how effective and how effectively are they doing the stretches, so we can audit the group and the leader. But my biggest successes are the individual conversations I have had. I have a few stories from groups that I have stretched with individuals who have come talk to me and said how a stretch program has impacted them and if I can brag one guy one of my lifetime best moments was when a guy told me that he was working at a construction site. And he said that he was walking on the big rocks of the construction site. And they had been stretching for probably six months at this place. And he said that he was walking on the big rocks on the construction site, rolled his ankle, and had that lightning bolt of pain in his ankle. And he said, Patte, I knew that I tore something, and it hurts so bad. And I walked around, and I was limping on it for about five minutes. 

And I was thinking to myself, oh, no, what if I cannot do the sporting event that I was going to do that weekend? What if I am really injured and I have to miss work? And he said, after five minutes, he no longer had any pain. And he said, Patte, I know it is because the stretches that you have shown us to help strengthen and stretch my ankle and my lower leg, that is something that previously I would have torn, something that I was able to just walk off. And is that a career high for me? Yes, it really was, because something that I taught this guy made him not get hurt and attributed it to the stretch program that his employer provided. So, yes, it was a very proud mama moment. Another one that will stick with me forever. I had a stretch program where they were getting pretty advanced, and I incorporated squats just basically going towards a sitting position and up. And I always teach people different ways of doing it because not everybody can do a squat. And people kind of freak out with squats if they haven’t done it before. What if I cannot do it safely? 

How am I going to do it? Oh, I know this is going to hurt. And this guy told me that he was worried about doing squats because he had knee pain, and he was worried that if he did squats, it would increase his knee pain. And he said, Patte, after a month of doing squats, not only did it not increase my knee pain, but I also no longer have knee pain. He knew it was from those squat exercises. Yes, because the squat exercises were allowing him to strengthen his hip muscles. So now, not only is he not in harm’s way, but he is also strengthening his muscles so that he can be safer. So, it’s those little things that are career highs for me, and it makes for a wonderful brag. I have to admit, it’s in my mental portfolio. 

I love it. I think it is also an interesting piece because you talked about the endorphins that make people happier. It strikes me, that even if you can bring it into an office environment, there are probably very few industries environments that shouldn’t consider something like this. Even if it’s a small stretching program, it just also creates a team-building activity that gets energy flowing and gets people more alert for the work ahead. It sounds like a very simple fix that obviously improves safety performance, but also has lots of other positive benefits. 

I think people would be more alert. I think the people who kind of like slowly to walk into work if they do a seven-minute stretch program, they’ll wake up during that stretch program. And I’d rather them wake up during a stretch program rather than wake up after they’re already swinging a hammer or driving a piece of mobile equipment. So, yeah, I think that will increase their safety as well. 

Right. 

So recently I had a safety person talk to me and he said that he thinks that his organization would benefit from a stretch program, but he is really having trouble selling it to upper management their injuries are high and there are numerous reasons. And I said something, and I have been doing this for a long time, and I said something to the sky, and I said, your workers have been giving their bodies to your company and they will for their entire career. All you are asking is that your company gives them seven minutes a day. It seems like a pretty fair trade-off, and he was kind of blown away by that too. But it is like we are asking so much of our workers, hopefully, they’re going to stay with us throughout their career, retire from us, and why don’t we make a tiny little investment from them so that they can feel better upon retirement. I see stretch programs as a bit of a 401K for our bodies, and if we can provide them with that time, provide them with education, why wouldn’t we? 

I think that is a great pitch because it’s very simple just asking for seven minutes. And I could see the value of the A call center based on what you shared, right, where you have got people that are captive for hours in an environment answering phones, but you could just get the energy flowing, just start the day with some stretches and it’s going. 

To make them a little bit happier. I had a plant manager announce once. He said, of course, we are going to let them stretch for seven minutes a day. They are going to gather on their own in the morning already. If we round them up for seven minutes, we can assess them, we can manage them, they are going to still have their conversations, but we are going to stretch. We can talk to them a little bit about the safety that is going to be happening. And as he knows, the front-line supervisors can also assess the workforce in the morning and make sure that they are walking in looking healthy, looking safe, and unimpaired in any way. And it is just one of the many benefits of stretching. 

Definitely. I really appreciate you coming in and sharing some of your thoughts or ideas about it. I definitely have seen the value of power in organizations, particularly when leaders embrace it, leaders sponsor it, even at very senior levels, recognizing the importance. And it does not sound like it’s a very complicated thing necessarily to go roll out in different industries. So, if somebody wants to get in touch with you, Patte, what’s the best way for them to connect with you? 

My email is Ackermann, which is A-C-K-E-R-M-A-N-N as in Patte at SSM select.com. 

Perfect. Well, thank you very much for sharing your ideas on stretching programs, and definitely encourage people to think about how to incorporate them if you don’t have a good program already in place in your organization.

Well, thank you for having me. This was fun.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the path. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo consulting.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Patte Ackermann is an Industrial Physical Therapist with SSM Health Physical Therapy in St. Louis, MO.  For over 25 years she has dedicated herself professionally to working with employers to reduce workers’ compensation claims and their associated costs.  Her expertise includes job site physical therapy and work hardening utilizing the tools of the trade to ensure that therapy is as functional as is possible.  She also specializes in on-site injury prevention classes, job-site flex and stretch programs, job analyses, ergonomic assessment and recommendations, individualized exercise programs, body mechanics coaching, job descriptions and any other method of helping employees and employers with the common goal of improving job site safety and overall health and wellness.

She received her BS in Physical therapy along with her BA in Psychology from Maryville University and her BS in Corporate Fitness from University of Tampa.  She is a Certified Safety Consultant through the State of Missouri.

For more information: [email protected].

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