The Industrial Athlete

Published On: May 22, 2023By Categories: Drilling, Features, Safety

Do water well contractors view themselves as industrial athletes?

By Mike Price

The water well industry worker is routinely using their muscles to pull, bend, twist, turn, and other necessary movements. Photo courtesy Yellow Jacket Drilling Services LLC in Phoenix, Arizona.

If each day in the water well industry is a physically demanding workout, it makes sense that its workers are industrial athletes.

The term may sound new, but according to health consultant DORN Companies, it has been around injury prevention circles for the last 10 years. The industrial athlete is any worker whose tasks require physical strength, endurance, and flexibility.

Fitting that description, the water well industry worker is pushing the limits with a backlog of work that some say hasn’t been felt since the housing boom following World War II. They’re either doing heavy lifting all day long, using repetitive motions, or other tasks in addition to possibly logging significant overtime. Then they’re right back to it the next day.

This puts those working in the industry at increased risk of injury. Typical insurance claims are like other construction industries and include injuries to fingers, hands when struck or caught in equipment, soft-tissue injuries such as knees and backs, broken bones, vehicle accidents, falling from drilling rigs, electrocution, heavy equipment accidents, and chemical burns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports overexertion as the leading cause of work-related soft-tissue or musculoskeletal disorders among construction workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks more than 50% of soft-tissue injuries to lifting objects.

“More and more, the equipment is handling the big heavy drill rods and all that kind of stuff, but even still, we’re on our feet,” explains John Fowler, CSP, CMSP, safety manager for a large drilling company. “We’re squatting, we’re bending, we’re picking up, oftentimes we’re picking up repeatedly, and we’re doing this for long periods of time, so we’re very physically active.

“We’re not running around like on an actual field, so I wouldn’t say we’re getting our cardio up, but without a doubt, just from the bending, twisting, constant movement, and really working our muscles as people know, especially the newer guys. They start out in their first week, and a couple of weeks later, they’re sore because they’re using muscles they’re not used to using. That’s what it is.”

An industrial athlete training program, according to DORN Companies, combines several elements into a holistic strategy aimed at improving overall conditioning and fitness, boosting endurance, and strengthening key muscle groups to reduce the risk of soft-tissue injury.

Kevin Lombardo, president and CEO of DORN Companies in Denver, Colorado, writes that an effective industrial athlete training program  should include:

  • Assessment of employee or employee groups’ fitness to collect data that will help tailor training strategies to individual workers’ or departmental needs
  • Biomechanics training to identify key movements and improve task technique to reduce injury risk, improve range of motion, and eliminate pain associated with many jobs
  • Work hardening to boost employee fitness as it directly relates to their job responsibilities
  • Personal training to provide workers with custom exercises, fitness regimens, and nutritional advice that will improve overall performance and reduce injury risks.

“We’re using our bodies; we’re using our muscles—bending and twisting—and it’s important that we’re stretched,” says Fowler, who serves on the National Ground Water Association’s Safety Task Force and once chaired it.

If an industrial athlete program is properly implemented, Lombardo shares that companies should see:

  • 65% to 70% improvement in range of motion with nearly a 100% retention of learned behaviors some eight to 12 months after training, allowing the right movements to become instinctive to how people operate
  • Immediacy of risk reduction and injury reduction of at least 50% to 60% the first year
  • Improved morale (90-plus percent of people engaged report improved morale) and productivity of 50-plus percent
  • Reduced dependency on pain medications and doctor visits by 45% to 50%.

These four active conditioning exercises are recommended to be performed every day prior to a shift starting. All moves can be performed individually at any time. Image courtesy DORN Companies in Denver, Colorado.

Properly Moving and Lifting

A veteran of the water well industry for 23 years recently shared that he’s never had to purchase a gym membership because each day is so grueling, but the years of aches and pains are making him consider stretching.

Active conditioning exercises pre-work shift are part of a successful industrial athlete program. These exercises are different than the stretch and flex workouts that are passive. Passive stretching has been proven not to warm up the muscles.

It takes the body about eight minutes to transition from sedentary to active. DORN Companies prescribes 10 conditioning exercises that are designed to wake up the proprioceptor cells (cells in muscles) and actively engage the small stabilizing muscles that tend to be avoided in daily life.

Health consultants say the four most common conditioning exercises (see above image of them) that need taught are:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Lunge
  • Torso rotation.

“I learned this system of conditioning exercises five years ago and have taught it to hundreds of people by now,” says Kate DeMoss, Ph.D., BCTMB, CIEE, CIMS, western region training and ergonomics specialist for DORN Companies, “and I love watching the light go on in their faces where it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I feel ready to go work’ because it wakes the body up and it teaches you how to move better.

“People think they know how to lift. Yeah, you bend your knees, etc. Well okay, they’ll invariably bend their knees and still will lead around their backs and drop their shoulders and half the time do a twist motion, something to the side, and that’s a back injury waiting to happen.”

To prevent a low back injury, a simple body clue is to always have the belly button facing the task at hand, so the person’s hips are also facing the task. This prevents the activation of low back muscles that can get tweaked when lifting by bending over with a twist move.

Proper ergonomics is important on a jobsite to prevent injury.

“We’re always having people move in what we call neutral posture because that’s where you protect yourself the most,” DeMoss shares. “Most low back injuries start with a twist move in the low back, making those muscles in the low back spasm and that causes secondary spasms. So, for torso rotation, if you need to pivot, pivot, if you need to step, move your feet. Take that step.”

Squat: DeMoss says that most people tend to squat with their knees too far forward, which overworks the quadricep muscles. To prevent that, she stresses the need to use the glute and hamstring muscles when squatting. When leaning forward, the lower back, shoulders, and head should all stay in the position used when standing.

Deadlift: The least understood of the four, this conditioning exercise calls for the feet to be hip width across with the toes pointing in the direction one is facing. With the chest open, shoulders back and down, fold at the hips, shifting weight to your heels. Grab the object with two hands and drive off the heels, extending the hips and knees until in upright position. Fold the hips and reverse the motion until weight is on the ground.

Lunge: DeMoss says this conditioning exercise wakes up the muscles that one uses to go up steps, ladders, and on and off drilling rigs and other support vehicles. Getting up and down from heavy machinery equates to mini repetitive lunges.

Torso rotation: It sounds easy to do, but DeMoss says it’s one of the top movements that people ignore on a regular basis. She says torso rotation combined with the previous three moves is highly important.

“You always want your hips facing what you’re doing and remember to have your belly button facing what you’re doing,” DeMoss explains, “because people will turn sideways and turn their head and say, ‘Oh yeah, my hips are facing the wall.’ Your head might be facing the wall, but your hips might be facing 45 degrees off.

Active conditioning exercises pre-work shift are part of a successful industrial athlete program. Photos courtesy Yellow Jacket Drilling Services.

“If you’re doing something immediately in front of you, you can twist your hips just a little bit and kind of rotate back and forth and keep your back neutral. But people are always twisting their low back. You do not want to twist those muscles in the low back. That’s the beginning of probably one-third of all lower back injuries.”

According to DORN Companies, when workers are taught these active conditioning exercises and proper ergonomics, they usually follow these proper body mechanics at home. Fowler was excited to hear that.

“Not only are you going to see workers who are getting less injured, but you might start to see people not getting hurt in their time off as well,” he shares. “When they’re taught this, they typically just do it from then on.

“It’s not only good for their work life but it’s good for their personal life, which is also good because there’s plenty of times when good workers get hurt doing something at home and now they can’t be out on the rig, so you do want people to really take it.”

Importance of Ergonomics

Fowler’s company requested DORN Companies conduct site risk assessments at five jobsites in the summer of 2022. He believes it was the most important step his company has taken in pursuit of raising ergonomic awareness for its employees.

Kate DeMoss, Ph.D., BCTMB, CIEE, CIMS, western region training and ergonomics specialist for DORN Companies, conducts a site assessment in summer 2022. Photo courtesy John Fowler, CSP, CMSP, safety manager for a large drilling company.

“Yeah, it’s important to do the stretches [active conditioning exercises pre-work shift], but the best way to handle ergonomics is, in my opinion, to engineer it away,” he says. “Ergonomically, what can you do to keep people from having to squat and lift and bend and twist and all that other kind of stuff?

“What kind of tasks can we do away with? What’s the proper way to mix bentonite? Are the shovel handles too short? Do we need different handles for tools?”

DeMoss looked for safety hazards on the jobsites and whether proper body mechanics were being used during the site risk assessments. She was impressed with how safety conscious Fowler’s company operates.

“It’s extremely physical labor, and the more you can design the job to fit the worker and not the worker to fit the job, the better off everybody is,” she states.

The goal of ergonomics is to eliminate injuries and disorders associated with overusing soft tissues. It’s so important that some insurance companies offer free ergonomic consultations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s On-Site Consultation Program offers free and confidential advice to small- and medium-sized businesses in all states across the country—with priority given to high-hazard workstations. Consultants from state agencies or universities work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice for compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing and improving safety and health programs.

Addressing the hazards that lead to the most common ergonomic injuries include:

  • Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) like sprains and strains
  • Repetitive motion injuries like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Chronic pain, which by itself costs employers $635 billion each year, according to DORN Companies.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows from 2013 data that ergonomics continues to be a costly issue for businesses as reported in the Safety Matters column, “Ignoring Ergonomics Can Be Costly” in the March 2019 issue of Water Well Journal. These types of injuries account for one-third of cases involving days away from work.

In addition, BLS data reveals employees suffering from ergonomics-related injuries required more time off the job on average (11 days) than those with other types of workplace injuries and illnesses (eight days), according to the Safety Matters column.

The BLS reports that about 30% of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses annually were related to musculoskeletal disorders per the Safety Matters column, “The Best Defense Against WMSDs” from the October 2022 issue of WWJ. It states the average number of days away from work for a WMSD is 12 days, compared to eight days off for other work-related injuries.

“Ergonomics programs enable employers to detect WMSD problems and develop solutions,” Alexandra Walsh, the author of the Safety Matters column, writes. “This approach prevents further losses in productivity, quality, and profit by lowering rates of absenteeism, lost time injury, and workers’ compensation premiums.”


Water well contractors should view themselves as industrial athletes. Athletes are disciplined in their preparation for competing and excelling at the highest level. They recognize the importance of diet, hydration, sleep, strength, cardiovascular health, flexibility, mobility, and on and on the list goes.

It’s not just about genetics. Strong preparation and training are just as important as physical traits when one wants to be the very best at what they do.

“As the workforce becomes more educated, it is becoming readily apparent that workers who focus on preparing and training for their jobs are going to be safer, more productive, and overall, more valuable assets to their companies,” says David Messina, CSP, director of health and safety for Yellow Jacket Drilling Services LLC in Phoenix, Arizona.

Muscle Gun Aids Water Well Contractors with Muscle Recovery
Some water well contractors opt for recovery tools like a muscle gun to help them be ready for the next day of hard work.

“It is used by athletes a lot, and it doesn’t have to be used only for severe cases,” explains Nic Sprowls of Beinhower Bros. Drilling Co. in Johnstown, Ohio. “This helps promote healing and helps heal sore muscles and get over your pain more efficiently. It also helps circulation.”

The past president of the Ohio Water Well Association uses it for his low back and legs as needed, which is about monthly.

“We are constantly lifting, turning, walking in adverse conditions, and this tool helps me get over soreness in my old age,” he says. “I use it whenever I feel sore from a workday that lingers on. I have heard of athletes using it at least weekly, possibly even daily.”

Cold water therapy (ice bath or cold shower) has emerged as another recovery tool to help ease joint and muscle pain. It’s increasingly being used by athletes and of course could be an option for water well contractors too.

Recent <em>WWJ</em> Safety Matters Columns on Ergonomics

Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.

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