Construction’s rate of musculoskeletal injuries, or MSDs, is high because workers must do a lot of twisting, over reaching, gripping, kneeling, lifting, stooping, and repetitive motions. Employees can take steps to reduce their risk of injury, but so can employers.
Employees can reduce their own risk of MSDs by staying fit, being careful as they work and helping their bodies prepare for work. For example, one study focused on construction workers doing flexibility and stretching exercises before work. It concluded in part: “Significant increase of thoracic and lower back mobility and increase of hamstring and thigh muscle stretchability were seen in the MWU (morning warm-up) group.”
Research showed that “improving employee performance through ergonomics” was better than trying to manage MSDs.
But there is so much more to tackling the MSD problem. Today, conversations on the topic are taking a broader scope and taking a closer look at the physical nature of work, and how companies set up their work processes. That’s leading many employers to explore ways of reducing worker injury by using administrative and engineering controls.
Ergonomics in Action
Employers are also studying how they structure tasks, the training they provide, and the types of tools and equipment they provide. Much of their effort centers on ergonomics, or the study of people at work, and how they can reduce and eliminate injuries from overusing muscles, poor posture, and repetitive tasks.
One company, Western Specialty Contractors, credits a focus on ergonomics as one of the factors leading to its lowest ever OSHA Total Recordable Rate of 1.95. According to Eric Olson, Western’s safety director, that rate is almost two points better than the industry average for Western’s work classification. The company uses carts, dollies, and forklifts to help keep soft tissue injuries down. Western had 900 workers performing 2.1 million labor hours in 2016.
Cummins, Inc., a manufacturer with close ties to the construction industry, reduced its ergonomics injuries rate by 13%, in part through its Ergonomics Cup competition. Injuries arising from ergonomic causes are a leading class of injuries across the company’s global footprint. The Ergonomics Cup program inspires “employees to identify and fix ergonomic problems.”
Fitting Work to the Employee
There is even some recognition that not everyone’s body handles work stresses the same. Until recently, little thought has been given to fitting the job to the person rather than fitting the person to the job. But research findings by Humantech, workplace improvement specialists, showed that companies benefitted more from fitting the job to the person. The companies that participated in the research learned that “improving employee performance through ergonomics” was better than trying to manage MSDs.
Much of the time, employees recognize ergonomic issues long before their employers do. But, most just “power through” and rely on treating their symptoms rather than addressing the cause. If a worker has chronic back pain because they have to stoop multiple times every hour, perhaps the task needs improvement. Raising the work so the worker no longer has to bend over is an example of using ergonomic principles to improve tasks.
Floor level work, where people are forced to work on their knees, is particularly hard on muscles and joints. When people must twist or lift from kneeling positions, the damage to their bodies is intensified. Sometimes, employers can change the materials, the process, or the tools to reduce or eliminate these risks.
There are also cases where people work on the floor because it is the nearest large flat surface, like when assembling sheet metal ducts and rebar cages. Training people to set up and use improvised work benches from readily available materials can get them off the floor and into safer work habits. Switching to tools like long-handled screw guns, motorized screeds, rebar tying tools with long handles, and kneeling creepers can reduce stress and injuries to lower the back and knees.
Workers in the masonry industries face a lot of injury-producing motions. They regularly stoop to pick up blocks and then twist and turn while setting them in place. In this case, using split-level adjustable scaffolding allows the worker to keep the material at waist height. There is less chance for injury when they don’t have to bend over so far, and the work becomes less fatiguing.
For overhead work, similar principles apply as for floor level work. Tools with extensions, spring-assisted tools, pneumatic systems, and lifts all help to ease the strain on shoulders, backs, arms, and wrists.
Sometimes changing materials can net injury reducing benefits. Lightweight concrete blocks weigh up to 40% less than traditional blocks. And for all those hand work tasks, choosing ergonomic hand tools, low vibration tools, and sometimes most importantly, the right tool, will help prevent carpal tunnel, tendonitis, trigger finger, and tennis elbow.
Signs of Trouble
While incorporating ergonomic principles will benefit any construction business and its employees, some urgently need them. Here are some signs you need ergonomic intervention:
- Excessive hand, arm and shoulder problems, people complaining of low back pain, and people diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome
- Workers complaining about tasks that cause soreness, aches, and pain (especially if the symptoms don’t go away after a night’s rest)
- Tasks requiring forceful actions, repetitive motions, heavy lifting, lifting overhead, vibrations, and multiple awkward movements like bending over and kneeling
Because there’s a cost associated with many ergonomic changes, companies have to factor that into their operating expenses, or include those costs with their bids. But, this can become a point of differentiation for companies that do it well and can show statistical improvements in their injury and accident rates. Workers compensation premiums can go down along with accident insurance premiums when the business has fewer injuries.