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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As 500 workers on the Milwaukee Bucks arena project launched into a "wiggle in the middle" exercise, a voice rang out from the upper concourse.
"Hey Denver! Turn around!" a concrete finisher hollered down at project superintendent Denver Callahan, who helps lead the early morning gathering from a small platform.
Without missing a beat, Callahan turned and did a quick hip gyration to peals of laughter.
At 7 every morning, before work begins on the most visible and significant addition to the downtown landscape in more than a decade, hard-hatted construction workers from all construction trades gather in the arena bowl.
They stretch. They bend. They squat. And yes, they wiggle.
At a recent session led by Mortenson Construction safety engineer Kyle Fons, the group seemed engaged and followed along, although there were mixed levels of enthusiasm - not to mention mixed success finding their toes.
Though the benefits of such programs are a little murky, it combines business and a bit of fun, and Mortenson, the construction manager on the multipurpose $524 million arena, believes in it.
"It's not just about stretching," said Mel Langlais, safety director, for Mortenson's Milwaukee Operating Group. "It's more of a cultural thing. It's the idea of starting the day together and it gets the tone set for the rest of the day."
Pre-work movement and breathing exercises drew attention in the late 1970s when Japanese automakers initiated them at factories they opened in the United States. Such programs even got the Hollywood treatment, playing a memorable part in the film "Gung Ho," starring a young Michael Keaton. The fitness goals on today's construction sites are much the same, but the benefits extend to a broader awareness of on-the-job safety, Mortenson officials said. That also includes an emphasis on health and wellness in an industry that hasn't been known for such concerns.
Mortenson started daily stretching on its job sites about 20 years ago "and we saw the benefit immediately," Langlais said.
That includes a reduced injury rate and "a huge increase in our culture," Langlais said, adding, "Stretching for 10 minutes is not going to give you super powers."
In leading the sessions, Fons includes reminders that workers can carry with them all day.
"Keep your head on a swivel" and be aware of what's happening around you, Fons preaches.
Mortenson has workers do a second stretching session at midday after their lunch break. Those gatherings are smaller, taking place within the various trades on the site.
"It's a huge investment," Fons said of the time invested per worker in stretching over the course of the two-year project. At its peak later this year, about 800 workers will be on the site.
"It doesn't happen on every job site," said Tony Mayrhofer, business manager for Iron Workers Local 8, which has about 100 members on the arena project.
He said that while some workers are skeptical of the stretching, others don't mind and see benefits.
"If you are able to stretch out before, you're able to get strains and sprains down," he said.
There appears to be no concrete evidence linking stretching programs to reduced workplace injuries, said Andy Starsky, an associate professor of physical therapy at Marquette University who teaches a course in biomechanics.
"In general, the jury is out when it comes to stretching and dynamic warmups," Starsky said. "Half of the research says it's helpful and half says it doesn't make much of a difference."
"I'd say it's two thirds physical and I think one third mental," he said.
A 2015 article in the Journal of Safety Research said that although there "is little to no scientific evidence showing that (stretching and flexing programs) work as intended, construction companies continue to implement (the) programs with the goal of reducing work-related injuries."
Stretch and flex programs "should be only one component of a more comprehensive ergonomics prevention program," the article said. "Conducting daily safety huddles at the same time also may enhance worker communication, camaraderie, collaboration and improve safety outcomes."
Starsky said such programs help workers get their brains engaged on what can be dangerous job sites.
"Getting moving certainly fires up the brain," he said. "Getting moving increases muscle temperature and makes them more pliable and slightly stronger."
He added: "Kudos to Mortenson for doing this."
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