Industrial Athlete

workers exercising

Like training regimens for professional athletes, the Industrial Athlete program takes aim at eliminating discomfort and pain that often results from performing a physically demanding job.

A look at a voluntary workplace program designed to improve employee health, wellness and productivity

Production and manufacturing operations at a large aircraft maker is a physically intense job. One might even call it a workout.

The Industrial Athlete program is an innovative, voluntary workplace program designed to improve the health and productivity of employees and address the need to keep employees strong and healthy.

In 2004 Boeing benchmarked program elements with another global, original equipment manufacturer. The outcomes were shared verbally with Boeing without documentation and were not substantiated by published studies in peer-reviewed literature. Thus, Boeing managers decided to capture elements of their own program for the purposes of analyzing outcomes. Data have been collected and analyzed since the inception of the program. Multiple analytic techniques have been used to assess the effectiveness of the program given the challenges of implementing and sustaining the program in a dynamic manufacturing environment.

The initial target of the Industrial Athlete program were Boeing Commercial Airplanes employees and manufacturing organizations considered to be at “high-risk” of an occupational injury or illness; generally speaking, these were employees working in the factory who actually assemble the airplanes and major components. Traditionally, these employees are the ones who had the highest injury rates and the most days away from work due to occupational injury.

Like professional athletes training for competition, the Industrial Athlete program takes aim at eliminating discomfort and pain that often results from performing a physically demanding job and improving physical resilience of the employees. The primary purposes of the Boeing Industrial Athlete program are:

  • Improve the overall physical resilience of Boeing employees to prevent the occurrence of occupational injuries and work-related time loss through a program called Job Conditioning;
  • Detect and treat early symptoms before they resulted in an injury through Symptom Intervention; and
  • Return injured employees to the workplace earlier than might otherwise be expected using traditional return-to-work methods by Work Hardening. *

For the purposes of this paper, data from Work Hardening activity was not analyzed. Results from the Job Conditioning and Symptom Intervention programs, which might be considered preventative actions, are described.

Job Conditioning

Certified athletic trainers and exercise physiologists analyze the physical demands of the employees’ jobs and design group-style exercise programs to prevent injuries. The overall work demands of a crew and each individual in the crew are reviewed and then a customized conditioning program is created by the instructor. Program exercises focus on endurance, balance, flexibility and stability. Typically, each crew comes to the conditioning class as a group. Because the program is voluntary, employees can choose to end their participation at any time.

Symptom Intervention

The Symptom Intervention program is designed to detect and treat the earliest symptoms of discomfort or pain before those symptoms progress to becoming an injury. The two components of Symptom Intervention are Deep Tissue Intervention and Athletic Training.

Deep Tissue Intervention is a type of therapeutic massage that is performed by trained therapists who understand the work the employee performs on the factory floor. The massage is geared toward reducing discomfort in specific body areas, restoring musculoskeletal balance, and helping employees get back to a more productive life. Each session is 20 minutes long and the employee comes to the Deep Tissue Intervention therapist in a factory location for the session.

Athletic Training is meant to assess and resolve early symptoms and educate employees on self-care techniques to avoid future symptom progression or injury. Certified athletic trainers assess symptoms, apply first aid techniques such as ice, tape, and manual therapy, and provide body mechanics training and postural education to relieve discomfort based on employee symptoms.

A total of 30,375 employees have gone through the Industrial Athlete program since 2005. Figure 1 shows the number of employees participating in each of the programs.

Almost 45 percent of the participants (13,733 out of 30,375) participated in more than one program element. This suggests that the employees may feel the benefit after participating in one program element and then come back to participate in another, although we did not have specific data to verify this assumption. Among the 30,375 employees, 24,752 are current employees in Washington. The number of production and maintenance workers in Washingtonstate, our target group, is 30,988 out of which 17,447 or 56.3 percent, have participated in one or more of the Industrial Athlete programs.

The detailed analysis we present includes a pain and discomfort reduction due to participation in the Deep Tissue Intervention and Athletic Training programs, and survival models for the time to injury for different injury categories.

For each visit discomfort measurements were recorded—both before and after the Deep Tissue Intervention—in 97.6 percent of the visits, the employee reported a reduction in discomfort after therapy. In 2.4 percent of these visits, employees reported having the same level of discomfort, and 0.4 percent of the employees reported increase in discomfort.

Understanding that there is a human tendency to believe a benefit occurred if any intervention was performed, we assumed a discomfort level reduction of magnitude two or more points would reflect meaningful discomfort reduction. With this adjustment, 87.8 percent of the visits led to a reduction in discomfort. Therefore, it is believed that most of the visits to the Deep Tissue Intervention therapist are beneficial to the employee, even if the benefit is temporary.

Employees may choose to visit Athletic Trainers when they experience pain or discomfort while at work. During an Athletic Training engagement, the trainer evaluates and screens the employee’s symptoms. Depending on the evaluation, the Athletic Trainer could refer the employee to a physician, refer to Deep Tissue Intervention, evaluate the workspace, or provide guidance to reduce aches and pain. As part of each session, the Athletic Trainer gives several recommendations to the employee to reduce discomfort. The top recommendations are stretching, icing the area of discomfort, body mechanics, posture education, taking micro breaks and strengthening of the affected area. They sometimes refer the employee for medical attention or to other company-provided programs.

Because discomfort/pain scale measurements are subjective, if we took a reduction in discomfort level of two or more to be substantial, 62.8 percent of the cases had a substantial reduction in the employee’s discomfort level. In addition, it can also be anticipated that many of the Athletic Training cases with no follow-up visit was due to a reduction in discomfort after the Athletic Trainer visit.

In addition to the Symptom Intervention aspect of the program, all sites in the Puget Sound region of Washington state now use a standard Job Conditioning program comprising 60 minutes, 2 days a week for 7 weeks. Currently, the Boeing Industrial Athlete program is only in Washington state. But based on the effectiveness of the program, other Boeing sites in the United States are investigating ways to start the program locally.

This voluntary program started at Boeing in late 2004 with the goal of reducing workplace injuries by improving physical resilience and eliminating the pain and discomfort that often results from performing a physically demanding job. By using sports medicine techniques, the program has been found to reduce discomfort after employee participation. Data also shows how athletic training participants show very small probability of injury of the same body part, even when looking at this probability after one year.

To read and download the complete Boeing Technical Journal paper titled “Industrial Athlete: Implementation and Effectiveness of a Multifaceted Program for the Prevention of Occupational Injury,” click here.

By Sabyasachi Basu, Laurence S. Wechsler, Deborah R. Smith, Corinne D. Towler, Catherine M. Curley, Karen Rogers and Tina L. Hermans