Chain of Thought

Workplace Study's Conclusions Are Kind of a Stretch

The expression “that's a stretch” usually gets applied to statements or conclusions that are built on faulty premises. So how do you best describe a weakly supported conclusion about the very act of stretching? A stretch about stretching?

There are plenty of special interest groups that will trot out some study or another that will tell you there are many benefits to indulging in something that's not really good for you, whether it be liquor, coffee, chocolate or some other vice. But it's rare when somebody will cite a study that says something good for you is actually not so good for you. There's always a reason, though, once you connect all the dots.

Case in point: Humantech, a consulting firm specializing in ergonomics, has done a study that suggests that the cost of a stretching program for a medium-sized plant could cost a company roughly $400 thousand to $1.4 million dollar per year. “Wow,” you might think, “that's a lot of money. I never realized that companies had to invest in that much equipment to support a stretching program.”

Actually, those costs don't involve any capital outlays at all; the costs reflect the amount of lost work time – between 18 to 63 minutes per employee per week (or between 3-12 minutes per day), assuming 1,000 employees spread over three shifts.

So what we're actually talking about is a period of time so small as to be virtually insignificant. If you took the time to analyze how you spent every minute of your workday, you'd probably find there are many moments that no actual activity takes place. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, recently studied exactly how much time Mariano Rivera, one of the greatest relief pitchers in the history of baseball, spent actually throwing the ball toward home plate. In 17 seasons with the Yankees, during which time he established the current record for most career saves, he has spent only eight hours and 50 minutes pitching, an amount that represents 0.1% of the elapses game time of his career.

The point being: You can run the “productivity” numbers any which way you'd like and find that significant amounts of time are being “wasted” (Rivera, according to the WSJ estimates, has spent 97% of his career not pitching), but you'd be fooling yourself if you think time spent in one activity would automatically be time gained in another if you eliminated the first activity.

As far as the stretching study goes, there's an obvious but unasked question: What would happen if the employees didn't stretch? If the program helps just one employee get through the day without developing a leg cramp or other condition that might lead to a missed day of work, then the program has already paid for itself.

Now, I could cynically mention Humantech's conclusion that companies who are using stretching programs would be better off “using engineering controls, practices and methods” to reduce the likelihood of work-related injuries, and then point out that those controls, practices and methods just so happen to be services that Humantech provides. But I've been sitting here hunched over my keyboard for several hours today, so I think I'll stretch my legs a bit.

Postscript: Jamie Mallon, vice president of Humantech, sent along the following comment in response to my blog post:

Thanks for engaging in this discussion Mr. Blanchard. We appreciate the opportunity to shed more light on the topic of stretching in the workplace as it is a common question in our industry, from clients and at conferences.

Our interest in talking about stretching in the workplace is to ensure people understand the impact of stretching programs on WMSD reduction vs. the impact of sound engineering improvements. First, we did not author any of studies that we drew conclusions from – what we did was tally the dollar value of the time spent on on stretching. The facts are clear, stretching is not a good strategy for reducing injury in the workplace and may, actually, create more problems by exacerbating pre-existing conditions or causing injury when done incorrectly – which, is the norm in many stretching programs.

We agree, that these are not a savings of capital outlays, rather savings of time. You argue that it is insignificant time – and we would agree that 3 to 12 minutes in the office is an insignificant amount of time. You probably spend an equal amount of time going to the washroom or re-filling your coffee. However, 3 to 12 minutes on a production floor is not insignificant and it is time which is accounted for and taken our of the production schedule. I would dare say, that it's an amount of time that an operations/production manager would fight for.

For instance, at the low end, just 3 minutes shift means:

• an automotive plant will produce 3 fewer cars

• a distribution center will process at least 5 fewer orders per picker

• a tire plant will build 2 less tires per tire builder

• a cleaning staff will clean 1 less room per team

• a pharmaceutical line will package 8 fewer boxes of pills

Seems like "real" money to us.

You also state: "I could cynically mention Humantech's conclusion that companies who are using stretching programs would be better off using engineering controls, practices and methods” to reduce the likelihood of work-related injuries, and then point out that those controls, practices and methods just so happen to be services that Humantech provides."

Permit me a rebuttal…

Humantech is made up of consultants who are all Certified Professional Ergonomists from the BCPE and therefore bound by ethical and professional standards. Thankfully, we all come from varied backgrounds with education in Industrial Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Safety Management, Biomedical Engineering, Human Kinetics, Biomechanics and Kinesiology. So in short, we have the educational background, professional experience and certification to practice in the field of ergonomics and aim to impact system performance through the effective integration of people, work and technology.

We also have the knowledge and ability to develop, market, sell and implement stretching programs for our clients – so why don't we? The answer is simple - the research tells us that they do not work.

The real point of our article was to identify that there is a cost to everything even a "free" stretching program – so why, in today's economy and today's lean times would you ever invest effort in anything that does not yield real results?

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