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Watch Your Back! Tips To Avoid Injury In The Wardrobe Department

avoid injury
By Ashley Sutherland-Winch

After spending hours at a time laboring over a sewing machine, loading the last laundry load of the night, and hanging up costumes following a quick change, feeling aches and pains are just part of the job. Right? Wrong.

I recently spent time behind the scenes of a mega production evaluating the costume department’ s daily routine and identifying ways to prevent injuries.  Here are key changes, recommendations, and tips that can be made to avoid neck and back injuries in the wardrobe/ costume department.

Posturing

The single most important thing that you can do to safeguard your body in the costume shop is utilize proper posture.  To give your body the support it needs to perform at its best, it must be in proper alignment.  Achieving “good” posture involves training your body to stand, walk, sit, and lie in positions where the least strain is placed on supporting muscles and ligaments during movement or weight-bearing activities. Maintaining proper posture has a myriad of health benefits like allowing joints and muscles to work most efficiently, prevents the spine from becoming fixed in abnormal positions, and lowers the chance for fatigue and injury to occur.  Plus, when you have great posture, people notice in a very positive way!

Does Your Workstation Need An Alteration?

If you look around the costume shop, do you see your co-workers hunched over a table or sewing machine? Are they sitting on a stool that is too high or too low?

While the costume shop isn’t a standard office desk environment, there are key adjustments to work stations that can be done to decrease strain and stress on the body.  When sitting for long periods of time with rounded shoulders or in generally poor postural alignment, small aches and pains can lead to shoulder rotator cuff injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, nerve impingements, and more.

Have A Seat

Regardless of your workstation, it is imperative that you can maintain a good working posture while seated. You should be able to sit in a neutral body position with a relaxed posture. Don’t endure stressful angles or excessive reaching to complete your tasks.  Change your environment!

As you are working at your “desk”, are your hands, wrists, and forearms in line or parallel to the floor? Put the costume down for a moment and check! Also, your head should be level, facing forward with no turn to the left or right, and generally be in line with the torso. Of course, you are not staring at a computer screen all day like someone who sits at a traditional desk but the main point is that you can work on your tasks without bending yourself into awkward positions and then holding them for eight plus hours a day.

         

From Left to Right: Poor seated posture (neck in poor alignment, curved spine, and excess reaching of arms); Proper seated position.

Taking A Stand

Standing at your workstation is also recommended and can be very ergonomically sound. If you want to stand, however, you must maintain good posture, wear supportive and comfortable shoes, and stand on a forgiving surface like a padded mat or sprung floor. Essentially, the same rules apply as they do for seated work. You must be able to stand up straight while keeping arms and wrists in the neutral position. Also, try to position all of your equipment in close proximity to your body so that you are not tempted to reach for the items that you need to use. If you find that you need to reach something, perhaps consider walking over to the item to grab it versus reaching across the table.

Walk Away, Just Walk Away

When you are working, do you ever feel a dull ache in your neck, wrists, low back? When this happens, your body is telling you “I need a break!” It is important to take every opportunity that you can in between projects, on the hour, or whenever you can to stretch, switch positions, and most importantly – walk away for a moment.  Not taking breaks or choosing to spend your breaks in another awkward position (slouched on a couch or bench) is a bad idea. Take the time to refresh, recharge, and rejuvenate your body several times a day. Always take allotted break times regularly and take time during the break to stretch, drink water, or walk away from your work station.

It’s Show Time

Are you responsible for pre-sets? There is no doubt about it, pre-sets can be rigorous, especially when handling heavy costumes.  There is no need to purely muscle through this daunting task and it can become more manageable on a daily basis. The most important skill to remember is maintaining proper posture. When you are in constant motion lifting and loading costumes, stay aware of your posture (stand up straight, engage your core muscles, and place your shoulders into a strong position). Maintain a strong posture while reaching overhead and if possible use a step or stool to reduce your chances of over-reaching and causing injury. Minimize bending as much as possible, utilize a cart or high bench at a shelf to decrease the number of times you must bend over during a project. Another great body saving tip is to push Z-Racks or other racks rather than pull. Also if you must pull a rack over a stoop or doorway/elevator ledge, ask a partner for help.

Photo credit: Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Let’s Talk Laundry

Doing laundry is an essential task for wardrobe departments and the act of loading and unloading washers and dryers can be a heavy task.  Take some time to evaluate where supplies are located in the laundry room.  For instance, is the detergent on a high shelf? Do you have to reach for it? Is the container massive and heavy?

There are so many variables in the laundry room but one that is certain, there will be bending at the waist, lifting heavy loads, and changing over laundry frequently, so there are a few key things that you can do to safeguard yourself in the laundry room.

Avoid over stretching as much as possible by utilizing a step stool or bench to avoid over head reaching when possible. A common culprit of over-reaching is with accessing the laundry detergent. Placement is key here.  Of course, it is important for the detergent to be conveniently located but also, it should be considered how everyone can reach it with ease, like a table top or waist high shelf in the laundry room.

When it’s time to begin hanging costumes to dry, identify a way to place all items on a waist high surface like a laundry cart.  Bending down to retrieve costumes laying on the bottom of a rack or in a hamper is not ideal and will cause lower back issues over time. When assessing items for repair, bring them to chest height or sit down on a stool to avoid bending over for prolonged periods. Finally, after the major task of laundry duty is over, take the opportunity to perform a few stretching exercises to reset your body.

Plan Of Action

Identifying a stretching or therapeutic exercise program is essential to decrease injury in the wardrobe department.  These activities can be done in the morning before work but more importantly, they will be essential to perform throughout the day or at the end of a shift to rejuvenate the body after the stress of a work day. If you are dealing with an existing injury, please check with a medical professional prior to starting any new exercise or stretching programs. Most of all, never force a stretch or exercise. If you experience pain, stop! All stretching and therapeutic exercise should improve your muscle aches and pains, not cause you more issues.

Cervical Spine (Neck & Upper Back) Stretches

Purpose

Stretching exercises help to restore joint range of motion by lengthening shortened muscles and connective tissue, which helps to reduce pain and tightness.

Instructions

  1. Perform stretches initially 1-2 x/day or between projects.
  2. Hold each stretch 30-60 seconds if tolerated for lengthening of muscles; repeat 2-3 x/each at breaks and at the end of the day.
  3. Stretch to your pain-free end point, then breathe deeply through your belly and relax as you exhale. This will encourage maximal range in that stretch.
  4. For pain reduction, it is best to stretch tight muscles at night just before going to bed.
  5. Never force a stretch, it should not cause pain.
  6. Maintain good, upright posture with all stretches and avoid shrugging your shoulders.
 * Remember stretching should not be painful, if you feel pain in the muscle you are stretching you have gone too far and the muscle will respond by tightening which is the opposite of your goal.

Chin Tucks

Purpose

To increase the strength and stability of the neck muscles

Instructions

1. Adjust your position to standing or sitting tall in your chair.

2. Imagine you are suspended by a piece of string from the crown of your head.

3. Protrude your chin forward and then slide it back into place (you will create wrinkles under your chin if you are doing this exercise correctly).

Doorway, Wall, Corner Stretch

Purpose

To stretch the pectoral and neck muscles that get very tight from sitting and standing with rounded shoulders

Instructions

  1. Position yourself for the stretch.
  2. Inhale.
  3. Exhale and stretch.
  4. As soon as you feel a slight stretch stop and hold. (If you feel any pain or discomfort stop, carefully reposition yourself making sure you are properly stabilizing and try again. If pain or discomfort persists discontinue the use of stretches and speak to your massage therapist/health care provider.)
  5. Hold for 2-3 seconds.
  6. Inhale and release to the starting position.
  7. Repeat 10-15 times.
 * Remember stretching should not be painful, if you feel pain in the muscle you are stretching you have gone too far and the muscle will respond by tightening which is the opposite of your goal.

Foam Roller Exercises and Stretching

Purpose

To mobilize the spine and chest to improve flexibility to decrease pain and stiffness.

Instructions

  1. Lie with the foam roller in the middle of your back across your shoulder blades.
  2. Clasp your hands on the back of your head for support but do not grab your neck.
  3. Shift slightly to your right and lift your hips off of the ground to place your weight of your upper back on the foam roller.
  4. Roll back and forth on the foam roller from your upper back to lower back gently at first and then increase pressure as tolerated.
  5. As you are rolling, try reaching your arms over your head to increase the intensity of the stretch.

Wrist and Hand Stretching

Purpose

To increase flexibility, improve blood flow of the forearm, wrist, hands and fingers. To prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.

Forearm Extensors

Instructions

  1. With your elbow in a straight position and your palm facing down, use your other hand to bend your wrist down, bringing your palm towards you. For a deeper stretch, include your fingertips in the stretch.
  2. Hold for 10 seconds.
  3. Feel the stretch along the top of your forearm. Do not force it to the point of pain.
  4. Swap arms and repeat. Do 2-3 times each side.

Forearm Flexors

Instructions

  1. With your elbow in a straight position and your palm facing up, use your other hand to bend your wrist back, bringing the back of your hand towards you. For a deeper stretch, include your fingertips in the stretch.
  2. Hold for 10 seconds.
  3. Feel the stretch along the inside of your forearm. Do not force it to the point of pain.
  4. Swap arms and repeat. Do 2-3 times each side.

Wrists

Instructions

  1. Keep elbows and fingers relaxed, move your wrists forward and back from position A to B to A.
  2. Then change direction and move the wrists from side to side, as in C.
  3. Finally, with the elbow at 90 degrees, turn the forearm so your palm faces the ceiling, then the floor.
  4. Make sure to stay relaxed and move through the full range of movement.
  5. Repeat each movement 5-10 times.

High, Middle, Low Rowing Exercise with Elastic Band

Purpose

To strengthen upper back musculature to improve posture

Instructions

You will complete this exercise in three different positions. You may stand or sit as per your preference:

  • Elastic band knot is closed in the top of a door (High)
  • Elastic band knot is closed in a door at your waist height (Middle)
  • Elastic band knot is closed in a door at the height of your knees. (Low)

To begin: Fold the elastic band in half and tie a knot on the end. Close the knot in a door at the starting height.  Make sure that the knot is secure in the door because when you pull on the elastic band, you do not want the knot to fly out and hit you.

  • Stand holding the band with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle at your side, as shown in the start position.
  • Keep your arms close to your side and slowly pull your elbows back.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull.
  • Slowly return to the start position and repeat.
  • Complete this exercise 3 sets of 8-12 times in each position high, middle and low.

Core Strengthening

Purpose

To provide stability and strength to your low back and abdominal region

Bridging

Instructions

  • Lie on your back and place the feet onto the floor, hip-distance apart.
  • Keep the arms by your sides with palms facing the floor.
  • Lift your hips upward to feel the contraction into the hamstrings, glutes and lower back.
  • Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and slowly release back to the floor, one vertebrae at a time.
  • Complete 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Bird Dog

Instructions

  • Position yourself in an all-fours position, with hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-distance apart.
  • Contract  the core and extend your right leg behind you. Keep the foot level with the hip.
  • Then, extend your left arm forward with the thumb facing upward. Keep your hand level with the shoulder.
  • Hold and repeat on the opposite side.
  • Complete 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Planks

Instructions

  • Position yourself in an all-fours position, with hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-distance apart.
  • Extend your legs and place your weight on the balls of the feet. Keep the core braced and breathe deeply.
  • To make the plank easier, keep your feet hip-distance apart; place the feet together to make the move more challenging.
  • If this is too challenging, you can drop your knees to the floor.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds at a time, then release.
  • Gradually work up to holding the plank for 30, 45, or 60 seconds.
  • Repeat up to 10-20 times or as tolerated.

Lower Extremity (Hamstrings, Quadriceps, Calves, etc) Stretching

Purpose

Increase lower extremity flexibility and reduce restriction in the low back and hip regions of the body

Instructions

In Conclusion

Only you can take the initiative to care for your body at work and home.  While your employer is most likely taking precautions to make sure that your work space is safe by following OSHA requirements, you must do your part as well.  Take breaks, use good posture, and most of all take care of yourself.  As a wise person once said, “We only get one body in life, so take care of it!”

*Featured Image: Photo Credit Department of Theatre and Dance – The University of Texas at Austin
Also by Ashley Sutherland-Winch:

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