As a flooring installer of almost 44 years I can tell you that caring for-and protecting-- your knees is of the utmost importance. This is also an area that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and that’s unfortunate. You cannot afford to take time away from the job and you certainly don’t what to risk permanent damage to your knees due to neglect. The most common problems are “musculoskeletal” (pronounced mus-cue-low-skel-ee-tal). These are injuries that involve the muscle, joint and bone. These can be problems that plaque the flooring industry.
Currently OSHA regulations do not even discuss ergonomics or any other means to protect the joints. Still, it is no exaggeration to say the entire flooring industry is dependant upon healthy knees. Our work demands constant bending, stretching, lifting and, of course, kneeling. All this places tremendous stress on the joints, muscles and ligaments of your knees. It is critical to educate flooring installers on how to protect themselves and to maintain healthy knees for an active flooring career.
First remember that the knee is a highly complex joint that is particularly vulnerable to injury. It is essentially comprised of four bones. The femur, which is the large bone in your thigh, attaches by ligaments and a capsule to your tibia. Just below and next to the tibia is the fibula, which runs parallel to the tibia. The patella, (what we call the “knee cap”), rides on the knee joint as the knee bends.
When the knee moves, it does not just bend and straighten, or, as it is medically termed, “flex” and “extend.” There is also a slight rotational component in this motion. This component was recognized only within the last 50 years, which may help explain why people have so many unknown injuries. The muscles which go across the knee joint are the quadriceps and the hamstrings. The quadriceps are on the front of the knee, hamstrings on the back. The ligaments are equally important in the knee joint because they hold the joint together. You may frequently hear of athletes and others who “tear” their ligament. That is usually due to sudden stress or other trauma to the knee. That may be understandable for a running back, but it does not have to be the case for an installer. Still, ligament problems are common. In review, the bones support the knee and provide the rigid structure of the joint, the muscles move the joint, and the ligaments stabilize the joint.
The knee joint also has a structure made of cartilage, which is called the meniscus cartilage. The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of tissue which fits into the joint between the tibia and the femur. It helps protect the joint and allows the bones to slide freely on each other. There is also a bursa around the knee joint. A bursa is a little fluid sac that helps the muscles and tendons slide freely as the knee moves.
To function well, a person needs strong and flexible muscles. In addition, the meniscus cartilage, articular cartilage and ligaments must be smooth and strong. Problems occur when any of these parts of the knee joint are damaged or irritated.
Okay, so now you know something about how your knee works. The inevitable question is: How does a floor installer prevent damage and discomfort? Sadly, it’s not always possible to prevent knee pain. Still, the following suggestions may help forestall injuries and joint deterioration:
Keep extra pounds off. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do for your knees - every extra pound puts additional strain on your joints, increasing the risk of ligament and tendon injuries and even osteoarthritis. My orthopedic surgeon told me the knee is not designed to carry over 180 pounds.
Get strong, stay limber. Because weak muscles are a leading cause of knee injuries, you’ll benefit from building up your quadriceps and hamstrings, which support your knees. Try knee extensions, hamstring curls and leg presses to strengthen these muscles. Balance and stability training helps the muscles around your knees work together more effectively. And because tight muscles also can lead to injury, regular stretching is important.
Avoid high-impact activities. When away from work, avoid high-impact sports and activities that can take their toll on the knee. Instead try some low-impact activities, especially if your knees are sore or tender.
Always use proper bending and lifting techniques. Avoid heavy lifting whenever possible and especially lifting and twisting. When you do lift heavy items, crouch down, bending at the knee and lifting slowly using your entire body. The knee can only withstand so many lifts before it is damaged.
Be smart about exercise. If you have osteoarthritis, chronic knee pain or recurring injuries, that doesn’t mean you stop being active. It means being smart about when and how you work out. If your knees ache after jogging or playing basketball or other sports that give your joints a real pounding, consider switching to swimming, water aerobics or other low-impact activities - at least for a few days a week. Sometimes simply limiting high-impact activities will provide relief.
Avoid sitting on your feet. This causes severe stress to the meniscus cartilage. The severe bend of the knee forces the meniscus cartilage to be severely stretched and will eventually tear.
Make sure your shoes fit well. If the shoe fits, you’ll be a lot safer. Choose footwear that’s appropriate. Running shoes aren’t designed for pivots and turns, but tennis and racquetball shoes are.
Baby your knees. Wear proper, good quality kneepads for prolonged kneeling. A good set of kneepads can help prevent injuries and should be worn at all times when doing any type of installation. Not only do they protect the knee, they can redistribute your weight away from the knees and also protect the hips.
Listen to your body. If your knees ache, or you feel fatigued, don’t be a hero - take a break. You’re much more prone to injury when you’re tired. If there is a nagging pain that won’t go away, see a doctor.
A lot of this may just seem like common sense but we see so many installers with aching knees that it is something that needs to be addressed. Full and pain-free use of both knees is a must for the installation of all flooring materials. Too many installation careers are shortened by knee injuries. And it’s not just risks on the job: Remember to buckle your seatbelt every time you drive. Most shattered kneecaps occur in car accidents.