Preventative physio revolutionizes injury management

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Mandatory taping reduces common injuries for planters

Physiotherapy tape being applied to worker's arm

A new strategy for injury prevention and management that started with a British Columbia research study may have applications to other industries. 

The 2017 Okanagan College study, led by physiotherapist Darrell Skinner, found that taping to prevent tendonitis in tree planters significantly reduced the number and severity of injuries. As word-of-mouth travelled from planter to planter, it eventually reached the BC regional manager of Brinkman and Associates Reforestation. The BC-based company operates in five provinces: Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, with BC and Ontario as its largest operations. 

“We were an early adopter, and it’s been very positive,” says Robin McCullough, Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator at Brinkman. “We introduced this prevention program across all of our operations, including Ontario. Tree planters are doing a job that is incredibly physical – if they were on a sports team, they would have access to support - physiotherapists,  occupational therapists – that have not been traditional in our workplace.” 

Workers with physically demanding jobs are like athletes and deserve physio support

In the past, a walk-in clinic or hospital physician would typically diagnose general tendonitis and tell workers to take two weeks off. McCullough says that didn’t work for tree planters because two weeks off in Ontario could amount to one-third of their season and therefore one-third of their earnings, so many planters would return to work and injury recovery was not actively managed.

“Physiotherapy researchers learned that injured tree planters were coming in and wanted to get fixed, but they wanted to go back to work – the way an athlete will say, ‘Put me in, coach!’” says McCullough. “The physiotherapists went to the field and studied tree planters’ movements, and subsequently developed a series of tree planter-specific injury prevention and management techniques. The work of the Total Physio team has revolutionized injury management for us and a lot of other companies in BC.” 

Understanding specific types of tendonitis and how proprioception works

The physiotherapists analyzed the bodily motions of tree planters and then composed a series of injury prevention and management protocols. 

“The two really groundbreaking things were: increased granularity about the kinds of tendonitis that are possible, and the development of the specific injury management protocols,” says McCullough. “There is a rest component, an ice component, and a stretching component, but it’s the taping that has been the most significant.”

McCullough compares taping to wearing compression stockings. Not only do the stockings provide support to the muscles and tendons, they encourage a neurological connection between your brain and the taped body part. Instead of sitting back in camp for two weeks and returning with the same incorrect technique, being properly taped while planting 1,500 to 3,000 trees a day reinforces the brain-body connection and “locks in” good technique. 

For the 2018 field season, Brinkman instituted mandatory taping for first- and second-year planters, specifically for thumb-sided tendonitis. “Before they planted a single tree, these planters would be taped, with Leukotape – a particular kind of physio tape, which lasts for a shift,” says McCullough. “For planters allergic to latex, there is an undertape.” Managers were initially skeptical, but once the program was implemented, they were agreed that it was a success.

Engaging people with their own injury management in a way not seen before

The end result was that preventative taping reduced injuries significantly, but also gave workers more ownership, engagement, and agency with their own injury management.

“It’s getting planters back to work faster, so they’re making more money - which is also good for us as a company –  but they are engaged with their own injury management in a way that an athlete would be, rather than the way I’ve traditionally seen fieldworkers be.”

Injuries reported earlier because workers realize something can be done

Another benefit of being able to access effective treatment and return to work sooner was that workers started reporting injuries earlier, because they realized something could be done about it. 

“The earlier an injury is reported, the better it is for everybody, including having the record of it, in case it goes in a different direction later on.” says McCullough. “It looks like we have more injuries but in fact we just have more people recognizing early indicators, getting taped, and then carrying on.”

Winner of the Workplace Safety North (WSN) President’s Award for health and safety excellence last year, Brinkman and Associates Reforestation is continuing to experience a drastic reduction in injuries and claims by using preventative physiotherapy with its workers.

“Their award recognizes they are doing something different from most firms,” says Chris Serratore, WSN Specialty Services Director. “Not only are they successful and identified as a good performer, what set them apart was how they drove their lost-time injury rates down and how they manage their claims.”



Video 7-min: Prevention of upper back and neck injuries

Video 7-min: Prevention of low back injuries for tree planters

Video 7-min.: Prevention of wrist and hand tendonitis for tree planters

Online health and safety training for tree planters


Applied research project investigates injuries in tree planters – Okanagan College

Saving the tree planters – Okanagan Edge

Study shows taping can reduce common planting injury – Western Forestry Contractors’ Association

Into the wild: Tree planting in northern Ontario