Plan ahead, use smart tools and provide training to reduce injury risk.
Construction is physically demanding work. For laborers and tradespeople, carrying heavy materials, engaging in repetitive motions and working in awkward positions are all part of the job. Yet they can lead to musculoskeletal problems — strains, sprains, tears, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc. — that force workers to take time off or even leave the industry.
A 2017 survey from the National Safety Council revealed that just 75 percent of construction workers strongly agree or somewhat agree with the statement, “My work area/station is set up ergonomically correct.”
To reduce the likelihood of work-related musculoskeletal injuries, consider these best practices for improving ergonomics on the jobsite.
Plan ahead for easier material handling. Equipment that reduces material handling — dollies, hoists, carts, forklifts — help reduce strain on workers’ bodies. The Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America suggests making sure crane time and forklifts are available before work starts and clearing off walkways to make it easy for workers to use carts and dollies.
Use lighter-weight materials. Think about the weight of the materials you need and choose lighter alternatives when possible, suggested Eileen Betit, director of research to practice at the Center for Construction Research and Training, also known as CPWR. For example, consider lightweight concrete blocks in place of regular ones.
Pay attention to material placement. When materials are delivered to the jobsite, have them placed, when possible, where workers can pick them up more easily. “If you have your materials positioned between knee and shoulder height, you don’t have to reach or bend as much,” said Betit.
Invest in (or rent) innovative tools and equipment. For example, noted Betit, “A construction worker doesn’t have to stand on scaffolding or work overhead to drill a hole anymore. They can use an overhead drill press and do it from standing level.” She also pointed to the DrillBoss universal drill rig, which avoids putting workers in awkward postures and helps protect against strain and vibrations. Other examples include auto-feed screw guns, rebar-tying tools, spring-assisted finishing tools and split-level adjustable scaffolding.
Go truly high-tech. Exoskeletons from companies including Ekso Bionics and SuitX can drastically reduce stress on workers’ bodies. Similarly, robotic arms like the zeroG arm make tools as heavy as 36 pounds feel like a pencil.
Provide ergonomics training. It pays to provide ergonomics training to appropriate workers and managers. They should learn key measures for preventing musculoskeletal injuries and how to recognize risk factors and early symptoms. They also need to know how to report or record these injuries.
Use toolbox talks as reminders. Remind workers about safe lifting practices, available equipment and steps they can take to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury. CPWR has a series of toolbox talks, including one on preventing carpal tunnel syndrome and one on lifting and carrying materials. Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine offers toolbox talking points on ergonomics and notes hazards for specific trades.
Don’t forget stretching and strengthening. Stretching breaks can reenergize fatigued workers and may help stave off some physical ills. Skanska USA holds “Stretch & Flex” sessions that they believe help prevent back injuries and soft tissue injuries. United Academy, the training arm of United Rentals, offers a Meta-Posture Program involving a series of postures that help the body cope with job strains through stretching and postural strengthening.
Educate yourself. CPWR will soon release an array of resources on its website to help people improve manual lifting practices, train their workforce, improve safety practices and learn about equipment they can use to reduce manual materials handling. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a useful guide to ergonomics from 2007 (some of the specific tool and equipment mentions might be out of date).
Stay committed. Reducing workforce injuries through improved ergonomics requires management commitment. Making a budget available for training and for ergonomic equipment can save money in the end by reducing employee downtime. Seeking worker input on the ergonomics issues they face, and their proposed solutions, is also valuable.