Risky Business: Repetitive Motion

Repetitive motion.  That two word phrase defines the decorated apparel industry.

Regardless if you are a screen-printer, embroiderer, or digital print shop, your workers repeat the same task all day.

Yet, most shops don’t spend much time training the staff how to do things properly from an ergonomic point of view.  In any task, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach the job.  When it comes down to it, our industry is based on the physicality of our workforce.

Even the most automated shops still require people to run the machines.

Pulling squeegees.  Mixing ink.  Hooping garments.  Loading garments on press.  Cutting with scissors.  Counting shirts.  Packing boxes.  Lifting.  Sorting.  Shipping.  Cleaning.  Typing.

You name it, we do it.

Yet, is it done properly?  Have you set your employees up for success to make sure they understand the proper way to stand?  To sit?  How to lift that box?  How posture comes into play?  How to work a full day and not have a sore back or achy feet?

What if we defined our work group instead of just employees, but as “Industrial Athletes”

I know, quit giggling.  I’m serious.

In a sports setting, great care is emphasized for the players to keep themselves in shape.  To stretch and warm up before participating.  To wear the proper clothing and footwear.  To perform a certain way with proper technique to maximize the efficiency and power, while minimizing the chances of pain and injury.  To listen to coaches as they point out weaknesses and push the team to improve.

I think there is a lot we can learn from sports to apply to our businesses.

What if you thought about your staff as a sports team?  Do you think your overall performance and efficiency would go up if you emphasized the proper technique for each work task?

You already made sure that the equipment and supplies were the best available. What if you focused more attention to the “how” your workers are completing each activity?


Consider the word “Ergonomics” from the Greek origins.  Ergon means work.  Nomics means natural.  In other words, “Work Naturally”.

Think about the culture in your shop regarding health and safety.  Do you have a user friendly workplace?  Answer these questions:

  • Does your shop take responsibility and provide a workplace that reduces the ergonomic challenges associated with the tasks?  
    • For example, are tables raised to prevent back injuries?
    • Do you have ergonomic keyboards or mouse pads with gel cushions for the wrists?  
    • What other examples can you name?
  • Do you have cushioned mats for workers to stand on, instead of bare concrete?  Are they new or ripped up and torn from years of abuse?
  • Do you have large touch screen computer monitors instead of keyboards in the shop?  What type of automation or barcodes have you implemented to reduce typing or data entry? 
  • Do you train your workers to “lift with their legs” for boxes?
  • Do you hand out free PPE (personal protective equipment) such as gloves, ear protection, or safety glasses?  Do you train your staff in how to use them?  Are they mandatory?
  • Do you train at least once a year on ergonomics, injury prevention and safety training?
  • Do you train your staff in the techniques of their job to prevent injury?
  • Do you schedule regular break periods?
  • Do you have a company wellness program?
  • Do you have an employee handbook, and suggest proper attire such as shoes that offer support?
  • Have you noticed a decline in overall job performance or possibly some quality control challenges?  This may be due to a workplace ergonomic challenge.
  • Do your employees report injuries to their supervisors, or are they afraid to say anything?
    • Possible injuries include pain or aches in the hands, wrists, arms, neck, joints, back, legs or feet.
    • Also be on the lookout for numbness, cramping, fatigue, strains, burning sensation, weakness, swelling, stiffness, redness or tingling in an affected area.
    • Look for these too: reduced grip strength in one or both hands, reduced range of motion, tension and/or stress headaches, dry/itchy or sore eyes, and double or blurred vision.
    • If you are reading this article and work in the shop…how many of the above symptoms do you have right now?  Have you said anything?
  • Have you had a record of any workplace injuries in the past?  Strains, muscle pulls, carpal tunnel injuries?  What happens if something occurs?  Do you make any changes to prevent it from happening to someone else?  How often are you reviewing your OSHA 300 logs or supporting OSHA 301 forms?

Prevention is the Key

According to a 2014 study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 38.9% of occupational injuries involving days away from work were the result of a muscle sprain of some sort.  This resulted in over 420,000 worker injuries and had an average of ten days away from work.

Have you put any emphasis into injury prevention?

Musculoskeletal injuries and disorders are the largest category of workplace injuries and are responsible for almost a third of all worker’s compensation costs.  That’s a big chunk of change.

Think about how we work in our shops.  How often is someone picking something up that weighs 30 lbs or more?  What happens if they twist to load it onto a table or skid?  How often is someone bent over?

In production, workers are constantly twisting with their upper torso.  Printing, loading, catching, and moving around.  Are they working in an athletic position?  Knees slightly bent, feet shoulder width apart?  What happens to the feet when the work is being performed?  Do they stay locked into place, so the entire leg twists?  How much pressure is being placed on the knees or ankles?  Consider the amount of stress that may be causing over time.

How we work is important.

What is the relationship between the worker and the machine or table near them?  Do they stoop over to use it, because they are tall?  Do they have to reach up and over because they are short?  Even a few inches of help could make a big difference for that worker by the end of the day.

So now that you are worked up and worried, what can a shop do to prevent injuries or emphasize worker safety better?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Talk to your staff.  What do they need?  Are they complaining about fatigue?  Discomfort?  If you ask, they will tell you.
    • Also, maybe you have noticed your crew changing something about their workstation on their own to make it more comfortable.  Ask them why?  If something is a good idea in one area, maybe you could expand it for the rest of the shop.
  • Identify where your problems are by getting out on the floor and observing.  You won’t know anything sitting behind your desk postulating.  Watch your crew work.  Who is struggling?  Can you adjust something to make it a better ergonomic fit?
    • Look at three things and consider their impact on the work being performed:
      • The Duration of the activity without relief or a break.
      • The Frequency, which is the cycle time between the repetitive task.
      • The Magnitude, which is how much effort is spent doing the task.
  • Look at your worker’s clothes, especially their shoes.  You want comfortable support.  Flip flops or bedroom slippers aren’t a good choice.  Yes, I’ve seen those.  
    • Personally, I’ve worn low-rise hiking shoes for years, as they are light and offer great support.
  • Eliminate excessive force.  When you have to really exert a tremendous amount of effort to do something, you are risking injury.  Is there a better way?  Maybe that ink is really stiff on a cold morning and needs a stir before using.  Instead of your Goop Scoop, try a mixing blade with a power drill.  Think through your problem and see if there’s an alternative solution.  Work smarter, not harder.
  • Excessive Repetition.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a job is considered highly repetitive if the cycle time is 30 seconds or less.  Well, that just about defines our entire industry in production.  While you want to be conscious of reaching your production goals, it’s important to remember that there are people doing the work.  A good idea to help prevent any repetitive stress injury is to take breaks, and even switch out workers in tasks.  Rotate your crews into different job functions throughout the day.  This keeps them up on training for different roles, and also makes their day more interesting so they are paying attention.
  • Posture is key.  Watch how your staff works.  Are they slouched over?  Do they look uncomfortable?  Awkward posture positions puts excessive force on different body parts and can overload muscles and tendons on an affected joint.  Over time, injuries can occur.
  • Poor work practices.  You should be looking for good body mechanics.  Are they practicing good lifting techniques?  (Squatting down with bent knees, back straight, using the leg muscles to lift.  Not your arms or back.)
  • Be careful.  Have you seen a 120 lb person move a 900 lb skid fully loaded with t-shirts across the shop floor and have to suddenly stop or change direction?  I have.  It’s frightening.
  • Can you change how you perform the work?  Pushing a squeegee exerts less stress than pulling.  Can you adopt a different method?  Maybe use a hand-truck to move that heavy box?
  • Do you promote mentoring?  Have the old guard train the new workers.  People who have been handling these chores for years will often know the best way to stand, sit or move to complete the task easily.  Pair up newbies with veterans and rotate them around as part of their on-boarding.  Specifically list what they are to learn.
  • Poor nutrition, fitness and hydration.  If we consider our workforce to be industrial athletes, how do you think the staff’s personal choices relate to their performance in their daily tasks?  
    • Consider how an professional athlete connects the relationship between their diet and overall fitness, and how our work staff thinks about it?  
    • How many people on your staff would be out of breath just climbing one flight of stairs?  In a production environment, I’ll bet there is a correlation between overall physical fitness with the amount of work completed by the end of the day.  What have you seen?

Many insurance companies offer free ergonomic consultants to come in and review your workplace.  Preventing injuries is less costly than insurance claims.  Check with your insurance agent and see if this may be available to you.

Larger companies often have an HR department than can facilitate worker safety and ergonomic programs.  Smaller shops often just don’t have the manpower, and will have to do it themselves.  All is not lost though.  Gather your interested parties and seek help.  Get a committee together and refine your program by establishing some priority goals.  Do a self audit just by walking around and list the top items you see that could payoff quickly.  Make sure you talk to your staff about what they need.

You can do it!


“Success is no accident.  It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” – Pele

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucious

“Success isn’t always about greatness.  It’s about consistency.  Consistent hard work leads to success.  Greatness will come.” – Dwayne Johnson

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