Physiotherapy is an amazing profession and one of the things I love is its diversity. Treatment from a clinic can be very rewarding, but being at a workplace gives a Physiotherapist much greater understanding and depth of knowledge to know what a worker does and what type of activity, positions or forces a worker is exposed to.
The types of workers and workplaces we come across as Occupational Health Physiotherapists (OHP) are many and varied. I can see those in manufacturing with acute sprains and strains, where you see the real benefits of early intervention and early return to work. A worker who has jumped off the forklift and sprained their ankle can be assessed quickly, provided immediate treatment which may include strapping, ice and advice on appropriate exercise, and back in the workplace undertaking tasks that won’t put them at risk of re-injury – all within hours!
I can come across those with overuse or repetitive injuries in the transport industry where the cause and effects can be obvious or quite hidden, and the subsequent intervention strategies need to be broad. A driver may present with a build up of back pain, and things to consider include the exposure to vibration, the seat adjustability, and individual factors such as weight and fitness. Some further task analyses and/or risk assessments may be offered to assist the workplace with preventative strategies. I can see clients with chronic pain and psychosocial issues that pose huge barriers to their ability to resume normal activity. A multi-disciplinary approach involving professionals such as Physios, Psychologists and the workers treating Doctors is essential here. Other aspects of our work involve health promotion strategies such as training, warm up exercise programs, 12 week challenges or reviewing work station ergonomics.
There are many different paths for Physiotherapists within Occupational Health. My practice still has a very clinical bent, however an OHP might work in research, teaching, health promotion, health and safety management, policy development, safety auditing, job analysis or training (such as safe work methods, materials handling, health and well-being or office ergonomics). At all levels a thorough knowledge of workplace legislation is imperative.
So what can physiotherapists offer the field of Occupational Health? For a start, our detailed knowledge of movement and movement dysfunction is critical to the analysis of workers at work. Our clinical reasoning skills are fundamental to determining an appropriate path and the ‘big picture’ in injury prevention and management. Also, physiotherapists are excellent communicators, and this is very important when dealing with clients and customers at many levels.
Our practice really comes down to having a thorough understanding of the role of the biophysical, psychosocial, organisational, and economic factors affecting worker’s health. Dose this get better outcomes for workers? Yes, it does.
– Rosemary Grant, APA Occupational Health Physiotherapist
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