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Stretch for Safety : Fitness: Santa Monica tests a mandatory exercise program for city workers. It hopes to reduce on-the-job injuries and workers' compensation costs.

December 10, 1989|ELLEN YAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Williams and his co-workers scrunched their necks, heads lolling from one side to the other. They weren't in an aerobics studio, but rather in a grimy Santa Monica city repair facility.

Before getting down to work each day, the men, in regular work clothes, exercise as part of a one-year test program of mandatory exercise to see whether the city can prevent many work-related injuries and reduce the amount of money it must pay for workers' compensation.

"You feel a little more limber," said Williams, one of at least 60 city employees who have been taught how to lead co-workers in exercises since the program began three months ago. "I don't want to be 65 years old and have my chest near my knees because my hamstrings are too tight."

While private U.S. companies have followed the Japanese in requiring employees to exercise, Santa Monica is one of the first employers in the public sector to make the practice mandatory. The city spent about $14,000 for training, stretching videos, newsletters and occasional checkups from Athletes in Industry, the injury-prevention company it hired.

City Risk Manager Tom Phillips, whose office was created three years ago, said Santa Monica is focusing on prevention because on-the-job injuries, medical and insurance costs and the city's liability for injuries are all rising. The city is "permissibly uninsured," he said, which means that it pays for job-related injuries out of its own coffers.

Except for those with doctors' excuses, the stretch routine is mandatory for the 580 employees in the General Services and Police departments, which make up 40% of the city's work force but claim 60% of workers' compensation.

Workers in these two departments, Phillips' office found, are more susceptible than others to preventable injuries, sprains and strains. From a cold start, after sitting in cars, police officers must be able to sprint after suspects. Mechanics have to wiggle 1,000-pound tires onto tractors.

"Just like an athlete has to get their muscles warmed up . . . so must a person engaged in industry," Phillips said. "If the results are successful, I can see it expanded to other departments."

For six to eight minutes at the start of each shift, workers reach for the sky, hands above their heads. They squat, stretch to each side and do a series of other stretches, holding each pose for about 10 seconds. Done regularly, the 12 stretching exercises are expected to increase muscle flexibility. Early next year, Phillips plans to meet with exercise team leaders and evaluate the program.

At first, Williams said, employees griped about the stretching and doubted that the program would work. Those who did stretch got wolf howls and teasing comments from workers in other departments. "We're out here like ballerinas doing this thing," said the 6-foot, 6-inch mechanic, raising his hands above his head.

Some General Services workers are enthusiastic about the exercises. They say they like spending time together before splitting to different ends of the shop. They say the routine has raised morale and cooperation.

But the reaction from police isn't so positive. One word written on an exercise poster in the roll-call room expresses some patrol officers' opinion of the program: STUPID.

Officers complain that the 30 pounds of equipment on their belts prevents them from really stretching and bending.

"Most of the guys are apathetic about it. It's extremely impractical to do (considering)what we wear and the time we have to do it," said Officer Gary Herman, who has won medals for weightlifting in international competition. But even he acknowledges the importance of stretching, having torn leg muscles in a foot chase.

Police also complain that if they rip their uniforms when they stretch, it's unlikely that the city will pay to replace or repair them.

In addition, officers say they lose training time to the stretch routine.

But some think it's worth it.

"We have such a limited time for our squad meeting, which is usually 25 minutes, it's hard to fit the program in," said patrol Lt. Al Bonar. "Maybe we give up a little training to have something like this, because if we don't, we lose officers to injury on duty."

Herman said the program would work better if officers were paid to come in early for the mandatory routine and allowed to wear sweat suits.

For fiscal year 1988-89, Santa Monica paid about $2 million in workers' compensation, $1.2 million of it to General Services and police.

Phillips said that figure reversed a trend of increasing compensation bills. In fiscal 1987-88, the city paid out about $2.2 million.

In addition to workers' compensation, he said, the city pays about an equal amount each year in overtime and on hiring or training people to take over for the injured.

The stretches do not take the body beyond normal office movements, Phillips said. He said seven employees have either claimed workers' compensation due to injury from stretches or notified his office that they may have suffered from the stretches. He attributed most of the complaints to resistance to change because five of them originated in the first month of the program.

"You've got to motivate people to be safe," said Phillips, pointing out that few employees used the city's free, voluntary health program. "People are just preoccupied with doing other things: 'Got my job to do, my family to take care of, bills to pay.'

"I think employee morale can go up in a program like this. If you feel good about the organization you work for, you can be a more productive employee."

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