Get your alma mater involved

Jan. 1, 2013
Before you read any further, I’ll warn you that this column started out as a rant. But after giving this subject more thought, I now consider it a rant with a plan.

by Anne Guignon, RDH, MPH

Consider reading: A Gift Only You Can Give

Consider reading: The Tale Of Two Hygienists

Consider reading: Hidden hypersensitivity

Before you read any further, I’ll warn you that this column started out as a rant. But after giving this subject more thought, I now consider it a rant with a plan. Ranting in its purest form is just sounding off. One might feel a bit better, but the result does not necessarily ensure a successful outcome. So let me have my say, and then seriously consider joining in on the crusade to end, or least put a dent in, the devastating number of workplace-related injuries and disorders sustained by so many dental hygienists.

Fourteen years ago, I was having dinner with my good friend and mentor, Sherry Burns, RDH, MS. We spent a significant part of the evening discussing my concerns about workplace injuries in our profession. The evening was long and Sherry, who possesses an infinite amount of patience and tact, finally threw down a dare. (You know how it is with true friends. They can listen to you whine only so much before they cut you off.) Sherry finally said, “Just pick up the phone and call Mark Hartley, and tell him you want to write a column telling the dental hygiene world we don’t have to put up with getting hurt on the job.” One week later, Sherry’s taunt was still on my mind, so I called Mark, who’s another patient soul, and made a plan for the Comfort Zone column.

Over the years I’ve had dozens of conversations with dental hygienists all over the country who swear they’re not hurt. Really? Who are they kidding? What is that hump on the back of your neck? Why are your shoulders so rounded that you can’t sit up straight, or your neck so stiff you can’t turn it enough to drive down the block? Do you really think it’s normal to take handfuls of NSAIDS to make it through the clinical day? Can you honestly tell me that wearing a splint is normal? How do you think your family feels when you come home at night ready to collapse into bed with another pounding headache? Kids, husbands, and significant others suffer the collateral damage that occurs when our bodies fall apart and we can’t utter 10 coherent sentences in a row.

And this isn’t just for those of us who have practiced for decades. There are students experiencing significant neck, shoulder, back, wrist, and hand pain before they ever walk across the stage to receive a diploma. It does not make any sense for a clinician who has practiced for less than five years to be desperately searching for another career that does not entail so much pain and discomfort. Collectively close to half of our clinical brethren report one or more sources of discomfort, pain, or injury.

Professional athletes expect injuries, and are paid significant salaries to provide entertainment. Young children, teenagers, and young adult athletes are lured by the thrill of the game or the glory that comes from clutching a trophy or medal. But the fascination of getting hurt on the job can be dimming. The outcry from aging football players, fraught with multiple injuries that debilitate their lives, is currently increasing awareness of that sport’s ugly legacy.

Going down the path blindly and thinking that you’ll never get injured is foolish. An amazing number of dental hygienists didn’t receive much information about workplace safety in school. Many of us were taught to accept whatever working environment we were given. We were expected to behave like “good little girls and boys” and not whine. While I’m not advocating whining, are you really owning up to your own risk and taking steps on your own behalf to create a safe working environment? Are you practicing dental hygiene for too many hours, or without custom equipment that can provide a safer working environment?

With every passing year, more hygienists are taking charge of their own careers. They’re getting custom magnification loupes. They’re purchasing safe seating systems, using better hand instruments, getting gloves that reduce hand stress, and working more with power-driven scalers. Collectively over the last decade, we’ve become more responsible about our own health and careers.

But the system is broken. Sadly, only one quarter of all dental hygiene programs mandate magnification despite research indicating that adoption of magnification improves posture, and the ideal time to begin wearing loupes is at the beginning of one’s career. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Magnification is only one of the many solutions that can prevent needless injuries.

I have yet to meet a dental hygienist who regrets taking charge of his or her own career. Many say that purchasing their own equipment was their first step on the path to reversing or preventing career-altering injuries, situations that could easily end their careers if they had not taken responsibility for their professional futures and ensured their own comfort zone.

So just like Sherry dared me to contact Mark Hartley, I dare each one of you to contact your dental hygiene alma mater and begin a dialogue about workplace injuries, and what you’ve done to make your workplace safer. There needs to be a stronger bridge between the academic world and the clinical setting. Together we can chart a path where our colleagues do not have to leave the profession due to preventable workplace-related injuries and disorders.

Put me out of a job, please! Seriously, if workplace-related injuries ended tomorrow, it would make my day. There are many other topics worth writing about, so let’s join forces and make these injuries a thing of the past in the dental hygiene profession. RDH

ANNE NUGENT GUIGNON, RDH, MPH, provides popular programs, including topics on biof lms, power driven scaling, ergonomics,
hypersensitivity, and remineralization. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award and the 2009 ADHA Irene Newman Award, Anne has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston since 1971.

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