By Dr. Ann Marie Dale
With the dwindling number of baby boomers and fewer workers entering the trades, it is important for employers to help preserve the health of their workers. The construction industry continues to suffer from one of the highest rates of nonfatal injuries, primarily driven by the physically demanding work of the industry.
These soft tissue injuries may develop slowly over time or cause a sprain or strain injury from a single event. The cost of these injuries, both directly through workers’ compensation insurance and indirectly through experience modification rates (EMRs), are a constant worry for employers. Many employers struggle to just keep up with the day-to-day demands of running a business and expect workers to figure out how to get the work done once the job bid has been awarded.
Employers who truly value their employees and who recognize that healthy workers are most productive must take steps to help workers protect their own health.
1. Plan the work. Everyone knows that planning is one essential key to success, but planning takes time and money. Employers must identify the tasks that require the greatest physical effort by their workers and implement the best work practices. Employers can reduce the physical stress in tasks by providing the right tools and equipment and making sure these devices are available to workers when they are performing the task. The costs to purchase or rent tools or equipment should be included in the bid or purchased through an annual safety budget. Examples of tools and equipment may include extensions on tools or attachments, second handles or supports to bear the weight of heavy tools, wheeled carts to transport heavy items, and portable lifting devices for positioning heavy materials at the worksite.
2. Communicate the best practice. Even if the right tools and equipment are made available to workers, lack of communication on the timing of tasks and best methods for use may be cause for poor follow-through. Think through your communication plan. Create a message that is simple and clear. Make sure all workers receive the same information on the preferred work methods. Once the information is delivered, ask workers to report back their understanding of the message and work methods. For critical processes, ask each worker to individually report their understanding of the message.
3. Educate workers on the best ergonomic practices and selecting ideal tools for each task. Using ideal ergonomic practices and behaviors requires worker knowledge on how to set up the environment for the task and using the best posture for moving the body throughout the task. Many workers have received education on proper lifting methods, but workers use best practices to lift to varying degrees. Lifting, carrying, and handling heavy loads have been linked to half of all work-related injuries in construction. Ensure that workers know how to lift properly, and provide appropriate tools for handling heavy materials and equipment. Frequently train workers on the company’s best ergonomic practices, as repetition reinforces understanding and learning, particularly in different situations at the worksite.
4. Provide and maintain equipment to support best practices. This is particularly important for the most physically demanding tasks such as manual material handling, demolition work, and working in confined space or awkward structures. There have been many new devices and work methods developed to aid worker productivity and decrease the physical demands of work. Devices such as an edger dolly, which positions workers in a much less stressful way while edging floors, and big machine belts reduce wear and tear on the back. Ergonomic handles provided with flooring nailers allow the worker to operate the nailers at a higher position, thus reducing the risk of fatigue. But poor maintenance and nonfunctioning equipment eliminate these benefits to worker health and to the schedule. Employers should provide tools and an equipment maintenance program to employees and also consider rental options for more costly equipment.
5. Educate workers on stretching exercises and use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Many contractors require participation in stretching exercises each day at the worksite by their own employer or the general contractor. Stretching exercises are beneficial for maintaining full movement of the joints and muscles of the body. These exercises are useful to prevent injuries to some degree, but they cannot counter the effects of heavy, hard labor performed repeatedly over time. Similarly, use of PPE to prevent ergonomic injuries, such as contact stress on the knees from kneeling on hard surfaces, may be reduced by wearing knee pads. Antivibration gloves may be useful for holding vibratory hand tools. Stretching and PPE provide some benefit for ergonomic hazards, but other methods such as ideal tools and equipment or alternative work methods will likely have a greater impact on reducing injuries.
Tackling the soft tissue injuries experienced by many construction workers over their lifetime is challenging, since the solution requires effort on the part of the employer as well as the workers. Employers must help the workers by providing the best equipment to perform the work and allowing adequate time and manpower to use ideal ergonomic work practices. Workers must be trained on the best ergonomic methods and consistently use these practices. Both employers and workers must cooperatively plan the best ergonomic practices for a given build and work environment, as each project presents its own unique challenges. Use the Common Ergonomic Risks and Controls Guide as a resource.
The loss of workers from disability and early retirement in addition to the decline in availability of qualified workers should be a concern for employers and workers alike.
Ann Marie Dale, PhD, OTR/L, is an Associate Professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Dr. Dale has conducted research to address health and safety issues in the trades, including specialty contractors and construction workers. She has collaborated with the Floor Layers Apprenticeship training program in St. Louis to both develop education and identify tools and equipment that may reduce stress on workers’ joints. Dr. Dale’s research is conducted on behalf of NIOSH and CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training. She also serves on the external advisory board for the National Construction Safety and Health Research Center.