Improving Workplace Safety Through Injury Mitigation — 3 Plays to learn from Baseball

I love Baseball! One of the things I have missed most during the COVID-19 pandemic is the ballpark. There is just something special about baseball. With Spring Training about to start shortly I think we need to talk Baseball. It has been a few months and it’s time.

Not only is Baseball nicknamed “America’s favorite pastime” for a reason, there are quite a few parallels between this sport and workplace safety (we’ll dig more into that in a second). But first, let’s talk more about one of my favorite baseball moments.

There is not a more “Baseball” story than the one found in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics. This was most likely the first World Series game I ever really watched. Just beginning my love affair with baseball at a young age, I was so excited for the World Series. I watched every player like a hawk, looking to emulate everything they did. No player had a bigger impact on my imagination of baseball heroics than Kirk Gibson. 

Kirk Gibson was so hampered by injuries that he could hardly walk across the room — let alone play baseball. He was so beat up that he didn’t even come out of the clubhouse for player introductions. This is the biggest game in baseball, to not come out for player introductions and take in the spectacle there must have been a pretty intense injury. 

The game was like any other World Series game. Lots of intensity and a little back and forth slow soap opera drama that baseball is known for. The Dodgers jumped out to an early 2-0 lead but then gave it up in the following inning on a grand slam hit by slugger Jose Canseco. The Dodgers were able to get another run back before heading into their last at bat trailing 3-4. With future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersly on the mound Dodgers fans thought that it was all but done. 

Little did they know that down in the clubhouse Kirk Gibson was working hard to make an attempt to contribute. Still unable to walk, Gibson was forced to use the assistance of a Batboy by the name of Mitch Poole to try and get warm enough even to put on a uniform.  Poole was able to get Gibson to the batting cage and put some balls on the tees and flip some soft toss for him. The Dodgers had managed to get a man on base but they were down to their last out. The batboy Poole was able to get word to Head Coach Tommy Lasorda that Gibson was wanting an opportunity to hit. THIS is when the magic happened. 

THIS is when Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully says “And look who’s coming up!”  The following moments formed my baseball dreams for years to come. Gibson hobbles into the batter's box with two hurt legs and performs the at-bat of dreams. He battles with Eckersly until he gets down to his last strike. World Series...Bottom of the 9th...2 outs...3-2 count. With all the strength Gibson can muster with his all arm swing, he hits a pitch out into the right field bleachers for a home run to walk off as a World Series hero ending the game with the Dodgers winning 5-4. Ask any Baseball fan who knows the story and they can emulate his hobbled home run trot with the accompanying iconic arm pump. The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 5 games and Gibson never took another at bat in the series.

There are many stories told of heroic efforts by sports immortals playing through injury.  These stories have helped in building what I'm calling our toughness culture. We associate injuries with “weakness”. If we acknowledge the slight ache in our back or the strain in our knee we think we will be seen as weak. Most of us learned early on to get up when you fall and skinned your knee. We were told “Get up, you’re tough”. We want to be tough, we want to be like Kirk Gibson, we want to get up and play on...but should we?  The problem with this toughness culture is that we have a skewed view of when to ask for help. We are playing through the pain that in many instances is a leading indicator of a future injury.


Injury mitigation can dramatically improve workplace safety but you have to acknowledge an injury before you can mitigate it.


Over the last few decades, Baseball has seen a dramatic increase in players spending time on the injured list. There are many theories out there trying to explain why this is — but there are a couple I want to point out.


Reducing the Likelihood of Injuries with an Injury Mitigation Strategy

The first is that MLB franchises are more risk-averse than they were in the past. Like you, they don’t want hurt players. When you lose a top-tier player to a season or career-ending injury that tends to stick with you. So they do whatever they can to reduce the likelihood of that happening. If a team has a pitcher slated to start the next game and he can't go because of an injury, the team, like your company, has to have a replacement.  Having players on the injured list costs teams a load of money. So why the increase in players landing on the injured list? ...because baseball knows the lifetime value of their player and they use injury mitigation to protect that value. Sure a win today is important but not at the cost of the season or the seasons to come after that.

In the same way, Players are more risk-averse than they once were. They don’t want to take a chance at losing a career that pays them quite well. So when they see an indicator that they are headed for injury, they will assess and make sure to get the recovery they need. They know playing through pain is shortsighted.

The problem with the “Gibson” method is if your line worker “plays” through the pain, they still need to show up tomorrow. Unlike Gibson, who would have roughly 5 months off after the World Series to rehabilitate and recover, your employee needs to come back next week too. If your worker continues on when he feels the first ache or pain, he is not giving injury mitigation an opportunity to work. Pain typically will increase with the severity of the injury. How severe of an injury will it take before your worker finally reaches out for help?

Baseball teams have learned that playing through the pain is not the right thing to do. In recent years we have seen many instances of players wanting to continue to play after a trainer runs from the dugout to check them out, but the teams, following a trainer’s advice, gets the final say and players get sent to the locker room to get a more thorough check. Teams are focusing on the long term vs the immediate or today's game view. Companies should follow suit and protect their players from more long-term effects. Not only is this a great way to win the hearts of employees, but it also saves significant amounts of money by reducing costly claims and it keeps the best team on the field.


Leading with a Direct Physical Therapist Approach

Now let's imagine for a second that baseball functions like the rest of us when an injury occurs. A player hits a soft ground ball to the third baseman. He has a chance of beating it out if he hustles. In his attempt, while sprinting to first, he feels a little tweak in his hamstring and comes up limping a little.

Typically, a trainer or physical therapist would be the first person out of the dugout at the first sign of injury. If baseball followed the typical workplace protocol, there would be no trainer. The coach would come out and say “Well... I'm no doctor... let's get you into an urgent care to see one”. Instead of signaling to the bullpen for a reliever, the coach signals the bench for a safety manager to take the hurt player to the nearest urgent care.

The safety manager takes the player to the urgent care where they see a general doctor, who orders some imaging to rule things out and then says "let's get you to a specialist".  The specialist checks him out and says, "No surgery needed. You will be all right with a little rest, some ice, and a visit to a physical therapist." Meanwhile the team has been playing a handful of games without their best team on the field because their star player has been chasing opinions on his slightly injured leg.


Testing Physical Ability and Performance

During the offseason is when a lot of shuffling of players happens amongst teams in baseball. Blockbuster trades are the highlights of the offseason for baseball fans.  Will your team get the current or next superstar? 

When trading players, teams are looking to fill current holes in their team and field a well-rounded team ready to compete in the upcoming season and further down the road. While the highlights of a trade or acquisition are usually the names involved and the amount of money paid, I want to point out the last two words of a trade announcement. Those words are “pending physical”. These are athletes, the naturally strong, fast, and coordinated.  Why would baseball teams want a physical? They want to ensure that the player they are hiring is going to be able to do the job they are looking for him to do. 

Like baseball, all your jobs have essential job functions that all have some form of physical requirement in order to be done. If the new hire that you absolutely love can’t physically perform the job you are wanting them to do, you may end up no longer loving them because their performance is going to suffer. Or worse yet, they take the “Gibson” approach and play through the pain, not recognizing they are heading towards an injury that is very costly for all involved. 

In summary, Baseball is no different than your company. Like you, they have staff that gets hurt on and off the job. But they may be different in that they have figured out how to handle those injuries in the best way possible. Why did they figure this out? Because they have a lot of them and they cost a lot of money. Contrary to the legends you hear like Gibson and his heroic home run, they don’t play through the pain. They utilize healthcare providers that can handle the majority of their issues efficiently and effectively. They have flipped the script on how to handle these injuries. They don’t have a doctor on the sideline or a nurse. They have musculoskeletal experts. And last but not least, they make sure everyone is physically capable to perform the job they have for them. The use of direct physical therapists, injury mitigation, and physical abilities testing can save you a load as well. But it is not only about cutting costs. This is what is best for your staff too.


Do you have an injury mitigation strategy? Do you use direct physical therapists? Do you perform physical abilities testing?


It’s time to start. These three things will reduce injuries and workers' compensation claims, and keep your best team on the field. Get an on-site assessment today.


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