What is an Industrial Athlete?
Industry: diligence in an employment or pursuit; steady or habitual effort.
Athlete: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.
(Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Industrial Athlete: by simple wordsmithing, a person who is trained or skilled (in) employment.
Perhaps that’s not the most precise definition of an Industrial Athlete, but it’s a pretty good starting point. The concept of the Industrial Athlete is a relatively new one. Within the last decade, the term Industrial Athlete has been an increasingly popular way to refer to anyone who makes their living using their knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform a job that requires a wide range of physical demands, such as strength, endurance, flexibility, and coordination.
Industrial athletes “perform” at their worksites day after day, often logging long hours completing physically demanding tasks. But there is no spring training or special camp for many new employees just stepping into these Industrial Athlete roles. No intensive regimen of therapy and training from a highly specialized, multidisciplinary team designed to return them to the job just as quickly as is safely possible.
So, how do employers shift their focus from treating their employees simply as a producer of goods or services to treating them like the Industrial Athlete they truly are? Here are some good places to start.
Give your new Industrial Athletes a pre-(season) hire physical and some (spring) training to assure they are ready for opening day on the job. A pre-employment physical and job-specific test, coupled with a period of ramping up, will reduce the risk that the first week on the job finds the employee already on the injured (reserve) list.
Provide feedback and training that is specific to the work and environment of your employees. Ergonomics intervention can help address concerns before they become injuries. Provide employees with the tools, equipment, and knowledge that allow them to do their jobs in the safest and most efficient ways. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work well for fitting cleats to football players and it doesn’t work well for fitting employees to their jobs, either.
Address symptoms immediately. Provide employees with the tools and resources they need to remain “on the playing field” of their jobs. Timely first aid can play a crucial role in alleviating aches and pains before they develop into an injury.
Create a culture that supports staying at and returning to work as soon as is safely possible following a work-related injury. This means treating your injured employee just as you would your highest paid player who needs to be on the field for the big game on Sunday! Regaining the strength and endurance to return to work becomes their full time job.
Value the overall health and wellbeing of employees. Consider the impacts of things like sleep, nutrition, hydration, and mental wellness and how those components play a role in the overall health and safety of your Industrial Athletes. You wouldn’t expect your best results from an athlete that you put on the field in a starved, sleep-deprived state, so you shouldn’t expect your safest and highest quality work from an employee in that state, either.
By shifting the focus towards treating employees as Industrial Athletes, you improve overall health and wellbeing for everyone in the workplace. And that’s most definitely one for the “W” column.
Kelly Marshall is an occupational therapist and a member of the South Dakota Occupational