What's good for baseball players, football players and basketball players is good for electric utility lineworkers.

After all, they're athletes, too, so learning how to position their bodies properly to perform even minor tasks can improve job performance, lessen the chance of injury, and maybe help cushion their co-op's health tab.

That's the assessment of Tony Kaczkowski, chief strategy officer at Briotix Health, a workforce health training company headquartered in Colorado that serves an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 utility workers in the United States.

Based on that experience, Kaczkowski uses the phrase "working athlete" to describe what lineworkers do. Except they're doing it all day, every day, and not just in a game or two a week.

"This is a tough job. You guys work hard. A lot of the injurries you have can't be fixed. But probably 50 percent of the injuries out there can be addressed," he said.

Kaczkowski speaks to utility gatherings across the country, including a recent safety conference held in conjunction with the International Lineman's Rodeo & Expo in Overland Park, Kansas. He said he understands that aches and pain are constant companions of seasoned lineworkers.

He also considers lineworkers a proud bunch reluctant to talk about a physical ailment with superiors or to visit a doctor under less than extreme circumstances.

"What we find is this population won't seek health care. Why?" he asked. "It's because you're working all day. It's 95 degrees. You're in FR [fire resistant] clothing. Why bother to go to the doctor, because you don't have a relationship with them?"

That's where adapting the principles of sports medicine and athletic training to linework can sometimes obviate the need to sit in a physician's examining room, Kaczkowski said.

Lineworkers will buy into a program directed at them, he said, noting that when he first set up shop at the international rodeo a couple of years ago, about 250 workers dropped by for assistance with nagging problems.

"People are not going to understand health care unless they understand what it does for them," Kaczkowski said. "It's just like sports. We're going to train an athlete, we're going to coach an athlete, and we're going to care for them when they get hurt."

First up: Maintain a proper "power stance" whenever possible, like a boxer or a marksman firing a shotgun. The spine is neutral, the feet are staggered shoulder width apart, with arms at the side.

"When we operate in this power stance, we're operating in the most effective way. It really is the basis of how we interact with activities," said Kaczkowski, who demonstrates the stance at his lectures. "Any chance you get to get yourself into this position will be a benefit."

Next: Work between your shoulders and knees whenever possible. Don't reach too high; don't bend too low. That'll keep the stress off the shoulders and lower back.

And how about the hands? Lineworkers crimp and pull cables and tiny devices all day. It's great for small motor skills and also excellent for the onset of arthritis. "The pinch grip is bad. Use your whole hand, like a baseball grip and avoid extremes with your wrist, keeping in a 45- to 50- degree arc with your elbows at your side."

Sound realistic? Not given the demands of utility linework, Kaczkowski acknowledged.

"When you're in a bucket truck, you lean forward the whole time. It's not really ergonomically correct," he said. "You're in a really bad, crappy position."

Similarly, he estimated that 65 percent of his encounters with utility workers are related to discomfort in the trapezius muscles between the neck and upper back.

"You have a hardhat on, and you spend all day looking up. As you're looking up, you start to get tense, or it's cold out. Then you get in your bucket trucks and you're bouncing all over the place and the muscles around the neck get incredibly tight and irritated," Kaczkowski said.

The solution? Simple stretching throughout the day for the back and neck. "If nothing else, we can have you do some stretching or strengthening," he said.

He has a regular program of stretches that can be performed anywhere at any time, and he's seen good results with utility workers, with about 85 percent of clients reporting back pain improvement with just two daily stretches for a couple of weeks. Another set of three stretches helps the neck and trapezius.

Also of use is what Kaczkowski called a "man-sage," massage therapy that targets the neck, back and shoulders muscles that give lineworkers the most problem.

Employee stretching and muscle conditioning is important for employers, too, he added. Five visits to a sports therapy and stretching practice will cost a fraction of repeated doctor visits and hospitalization. That can help to control escalating health care costs, he said.

And developing proper workplace techniques lasts longer than a two-week prescription of painkillers. "Stretch, man-sage, change the way you work, and you don't go to the doctor." Kaczkowski said.

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