Worksite Consultants Preps Employees for Job Rigors

RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News

In an industrial park in Southeast Memphis is a facility that can best be described as an “adult jungle gym.”

Among warehouses, 18-wheelers and office space is the home of Worksite Consultants. With its 3,000 square feet of ladders and ramps, boxes and weights of all measure, owner Denise Higdon and her team put the employees of some of the area’s largest companies through their paces.

“Our goal is to help employers effectively place and maintain their employees in positions that they can safely perform,” Higdon said.

Jetry "Jet" McNeal undergoes physical testing under the supervision of Worksite Consultants occupational therapist David Brick.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

She conducts physical capabilities testing and fitness for duty testing on those who will be expected to climb stairs or vertical ladders, push or pull product, lift packages or maneuver a dolly.

Higdon, an occupational therapist trained at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, was doing training and injury prevention for a company when she found herself laid off and pregnant with her son. When she told her customers she wouldn’t be with them any longer, they told her, “‘Well what if we write you a check, will you just keep doing what you’re doing?’ So that was really how it started.”

It was 1999, and work continued that way for a while, in this freelance model of injury prevention.

“I accidentally started a business,” she said. “Our customers started this business for me, really. We have some loyal customers who really saw the benefit of some of the things that we had been doing and just allowed me an opportunity to continue to do that with them.”

She counts among her clients the likes of Hardin’s Sysco Food Services, Barnhart Crane & Rigging, Ozark Motor Lines, Kroger and AS Barboro distributors.

She was going into the businesses and working onsite – Sysco had a space for her that was little more than a closet – until she finally crunched the numbers and realized her own space made better financial sense. Worksite Consultants, as a fully formed business, began in 2001.

Testing by the crew of six is based on job analysis. Higdon will go out to the worksite and measure what people have to lift, push or pull, what the forces are, the reach ranges or climbing ranges in the case of stairs and ladders, and create a test within the “adult jungle gym,” as Higdon calls it, that simulates what they’ll have to do. “It helps the test to be more legally defensible,” she said.

The benefits for clients may best be seen in what is unseen. By preventing injury, whether sudden or repetitive, an employer is saving money on cost of missed work and health care.

“They take it for an expense,” Higdon said. “If they hire someone who can’t physically do that job and they do get hurt, then they end up paying 10 times more on the back-end.”

Higdon even allows that, if she weren’t preventing and, instead, treating the injured as therapists, “we would make a lot more money.” But, she said, “the concept of keeping people well has always been a passion for me.”

The job “is really fun” and Higdon has found herself in places she never thought she would, she says, and that there are “a lot of interesting jobs out there.”

She’s worked with barge companies, a safety-conscious industry with employees who live for weeks at a time isolated and in close quarters, and who have to get into tight spots while on the job. For Barnhart Crane, a national concern based in Memphis, Higdon and her team have produced job-specific tests and coordinated with clinics around the country to administer them and send the data back to her for analysis.

She’s created a database with trackable metrics to provide customers with “a vision of the physical capabilities of their workforce.” This is important information for employers especially as baby boomers age, many staying in the workforce longer and their safety and productivity a concern.

It isn’t only physical labor Worksite Consultants deals with. There is also the issue of back care for those in white-collar office jobs and their posturing and ergonomic concentration. Higdon develops stretching programs to be done throughout the day to keep employees flexible and abs stable for longer bouts of deskwork.

“It’s never the same day twice,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to go out and feel like you’re helping people because, ultimately, we want to see people remain gainfully employed, but safely employed.”