A man whos been an ironworker for a quarter of a century, Bret Miller worked high beams throughout the Northwest for employers who often couldnt find the time for his coffee breaks.
Then, 2½ years ago, the Sellen Construction Company began encouraging its sub-contractors to begin each shift with a few minutes of ... well ... stretching.
Were workers reluctant? Oh, yeah me, included, Miller said. But Ive seen the results. We get fewer strains and sprains. It minimizes injuries.
For the past few months, Sellen has had crews working Tacoma General Hospital projects. And, each morning at precisely 7 a.m., patients and staff glancing out of the hospital in any of three directions have seen those crews hard hats, boots and all stretching and doing balancing exercises.
Mike Wisham, a former Marine and longtime ironworker and carpenter, leads one of those groups each morning.
Im a third-generation construction worker, Wisham said. The first time I saw this, I thought it was the silliest thing Id ever seen.
Now, I have to admit, Im a believer. Do it right, it warms you up.
Seattle-based Sellen is just one construction company thats adopted a stretch-and-flex program for workers. The industry has good reason.
One injury can demoralize the spirit of the job on any job site, said John Hogan, the Sellen safety director. More and more, owners are savvy with safety, evaluating contractor injury rates. If you cut down injuries, you do more business.
Frank Mandell, a Sellen project safety manager, said the company hired a consultant, Seattle-based ErgoFit, to design the exercises.
When we first decided to do this, we didnt want a bunch of guys doing exercises that really didnt help. So we brought in an expert, and she looked like youd expect an aerobics instructor to look, Mandell said. She put together a quick set of exercises that were keyed to the work these guys do.
The response from the workers?
My dad worked construction his whole life and hes 70 now, Wisham said. I told him about this and he said, Youve got to be kidding.
I tell him, at the end of the day, I still have aches and pains thats part of the job. Tylenol is still part of the toolbox, like its always been. But theyre minor aches and pains now, and theyre gone the next day.
Each winter morning before the sun breaks the horizon, the exercises are completed. They have names the airplane, the inverted airplane that somehow get translated into construction-speak. No matter what Wisham calls out while leading his group, someone is certain to respond aloud.
Beer grab and Ape drag probably arent the descriptions ErgoFit had in mind, but they get the job done.
Miller, whose outfit The Erection Company, of Arlington, Wash. sub-contracts with Sellen, said the program is now part of the work.
Weve got young guys coming up who will never know another way, wholl think it was always like this, he said. The older guys werent accepting until they saw and felt the results. When your back doesnt hurt after carrying a 30-pound tool belt, you appreciate the stretching.
If Id suggested stretching back in the 80s, when I started, Id have been told to shut up and get to work. Its a different world.
Hogan said companies are seeing the difference it can have on safety. Our injuries have been steadily decreasing. It cant stop someone cutting their arm on sheet metal, but the non-traumatic injuries have dropped.
The program may even change the image of men at work.
Construction workers fit stereotypes, Mandell said, and you dont usually think of them stretching before they go to work.
Larry LaRue: (253) 597-8638