positional awareness
© Katarzyna Bialasiewicz |

Toni-Louise Gianatti from Soter Analytics, discusses why positional awareness is the missing link to behavioural change in manual handling workplace training

In October 2019 a paper published by Health & Safety Executive, taken from Labour Force Survey, states that during the 2018/19 period an estimated 6.9 million working days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders. An average of 14 days lost for each case. Of these, back disorders accounted for 2.8 million days lost.

As a movement training specialist and provider of manual handling training, these figures tend to make me feel fearful. Not merely for the fact that the injuries encountered affect not only the individual but their families, their ability to cope with home life, their future (depending on the severity), there are the pressures on the organisations involved and the support colleagues and then in general, it affects society.

One thing I have noticed with workplace manual handling training available is that although it provides awareness to staying safe, it doesn’t provide the necessary movement or positional awareness training that is required in order to elicit some form of behavioural change. A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Ergonomics states that whilst workers have understanding and knowledge after conducting manual handling training, this does not lead to the behavioural change required to keep them safe.

Musculoskeletal safety

When it comes to musculoskeletal safety in the workplace, awareness and self-reflection are both essential tools. What is positional awareness? At a simple level of interpretation, it is the ability to perceive body position and movement correctly. For example, when extending the arms out at 90 degrees from the waist with the eyes closed, one should be able to have the arms at the exact correct angle without any visual aid, i.e. a mirror. Having worked with bodies for the past 25 years, it scares me to know that this simple exercise is quite difficult for a lot of people to perform correctly. That leads me to ask, if the perception of movement or body positioning during a lift or whilst standing on a high platform is interpreted incorrectly, how can one be sure that movement or workplace practices are being conducted in a way that is safe?

Without proper positional and movement awareness or what can sometimes be called ‘proprioception’ (the ability to be able to sense where any part of the body is positioned at any particular time) of our own bodies, there is limited ability to change faulty patterns, giving rise to increased chances of injury. A study published by Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences Journal in 2015 proves the overall movement awareness levels of workers within the MMH sector to be only at a moderate level and encourages organisations to take responsibility to increase these results and help reduce the risk of MSDs amongst workers.

Learning tools

Any learning tools that augment movement and positional awareness are the key to effective training. Disciplines that incorporate reminders, biofeedback, in-situ micro-learning, reflective processing, and cleverly integrated corrective and simple awareness exercises are some pedagogies to help the journey of reorganizing the neural pathways to realign muscles, joints and balance. Providing workers with education on a regular basis to advance this promotes a far greater chance of moving safely, improving performance and preventing injuries over the lifespan of a career.

In summary, developing this sensory faculty can attribute to attenuating workplace MSDs in the form of sprains, strains, slips, trips or falls. In particular, when training the body to change long standing habitual incorrect movement patterns, recovering from injury to prevent reoccurrence, (or progression into chronic stages) to move in a safe way or by simply acquiring the ability to assess personal capability of task performance; harbouring positional awareness is essential.


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