In protecting their most valuable asset—the amateur/professional athlete or the “industrial athlete”—sports teams and corporations alike have entrusted health professionals with the responsibility to oversee and provide guidance to maximize physical performance while sustaining the athlete’s vitality. Although the sporting world shares the same goal with the corporate world, the roles and responsibilities assigned to their relative health professionals vary widely. In this article, we will compare and contrast the educational backgrounds of two specific health professionals—strength and conditioning coaches and industrial ergonomists. We will also explain why they move in different circles and rarely encounter one another outside of the work setting.
Since they share a similar educational background, both sets of professionals have a solid foundation in physiology, biomechanics and biological responses to stress. Strength and conditioning coaches spend a significant amount of time focusing on gaining a deeper understanding of human health-related topics, while ergonomists spend a significant amount of their time in the engineering space, learning how the human body interacts with various elements in a system, and studying the engineering principals that can be employed to modify a workplace. The role modifications advocated by strength coaches and ergonomists are based on the specific conditions their athletes and employees face in their respective workspaces. One condition in particular, the ability to control specific elements, is a primary reason why we don’t see more ergonomists in sports and strength coaches in industry.
There’s an old saying: “Focus on the things you can control.” With that in mind, let’s examine the wide divide that separates these two professionals. Coaches in sports focus their efforts on improving the physical performance of their athletes. Since coaches have no control over the playing field, the environment in which an athlete competes, they must concentrate instead on maximizing the athlete’s performance and reducing the likelihood of injury. They accomplish this by honing the athlete’s biomechanics and overall fitness levels. In contrast, ergonomists have limited control over the fitness levels of their “industrial athletes.” With companies providing incentives, but no requirements for employees to maintain specific fitness levels, ergonomists must take a different tack. They focus on the employee’s work environment and eliminate or reduce as many stress-inducing factors as possible. The net result is that industrial workers now perform tasks more efficiently, more quickly and under far less stressful conditions. For example, a task that requires an employee to drill holes in a sheet metal panel positioned 12 inches over his head can be redesigned and lowered to chest height. Now the employee can work comfortably with his elbows at his side. Applying engineering design principals to reduce the level of workplace stress is the best method for ergonomists to reach their goal of maximizing performance while simultaneously enhancing the employee’s well-being.
Although strength coaches and ergonomists approach the same goals from different perspectives, ergonomists who work in uncontrollable environments, like a delivery driver maneuvering a heavy pushcart through busy Times Square in New York, will benefit more from knowing biomechanics and physiology than from his knowledge of technical engineering principals. Teaching your delivery drivers proper manual handing techniques or biomechanics that can be applied during lifting, pushing and pulling tasks may be the best way to maximize performance while driving down injury rates.
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