Ergonomics and work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are hot-button topics in workplace safety. As a branch of science that focuses on equipment design to minimize operator fatigue and discomfort while maximizing productivity, ergonomics configures the most comfortable fit between the worker, the equipment and the job. Proper ergonomic design can help prevent repetitive strain injuries that may develop over time and can lead to long-term disabilities.
Although thought to be fairly cutting-edge in construction, the practice and concept of ergonomics have actually been present in the workplace since as early as the late 19th century with the development of the split-level scaffold.
In the United States, the incidents of back injuries, an all-too-common type of WMSD, run an average of 50 percent higher in the construction trades than in other industries. Close to 75 percent of all employees in one construction trade have reported some type of musculoskeletal pain or injury. These injuries typically involve the soft tissue of the joints and can include back pain, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, strains and sprains of all kinds. Lifting, stretching, repetitive motions and working in cramped spaces occur regularly on any construction site and contribute to these injuries. The prevailing mindset in construction is that these injuries are unavoidable; through ergonomics, they may be avoided. Common working positions lend themselves to the possibility of WMSDs, but the likelihood of one developing can be decreased with subtle changes in the tools and equipment used or work practices.
Two positions in which employees commonly find themselves on a construction site have been indicated as the root cause of many WMSDs: ground-level tasks and overhead work. Each position comes with its own set of physical demands, effects on the body and available ergonomic solutions.
Employees often use the floor or ground as a solid, flat work surface, which effectively increases the amount of time an employee spends in the ergonomically stressful position of bending and stooping. This position puts a great deal of strain on the back and knees and can make completing a job more difficult because the body is unable to lift, push or pull as effectively as it can from a standing position. By completing tasks on an waist-level surface, such as a table or set of saw horses, the stress on the body can be significantly reduced.
Unfortunately, not all tasks can be done on a work bench. For tasks that require employees to kneel on the floor, knee pads or a kneeling creeper can considerably increase the comfort level. The amount of time spent bending or stooping can also be decreased by attaching handle extensions to tools. These extensions allow workers to use the tool while remaining upright.
Overhead work stresses and strains the neck, upper back and shoulders because one or both hands must be above the shoulders. Not only is this position uncomfortable; it can also be unsafe because an employee’s attention is drawn overhead and not where his or her feet are, increasing the possibility of trips and falls.
Shoulders are a series of bones and muscles that are held together by tendons and ligaments. This design makes them very susceptible to sprains, strains and dislocations. Working with the head back to see work that is above shoulder level will overwork the neck and shoulder muscles, increasing the risk of soft tissue injury, including nerve damage. Just as it is impossible to remove bending and stooping from our workplaces, it is equally impossible to remove the need to work with the hands overhead. It can be reduced by changes in work practices and equipment. Something as simple as a ladder, lift or hoist can change the angle of the arms overhead or the amount of time needed to be in this position to complete a task. Again, handle extensions on tools mean employees do not have to stretch and reach.
Many injuries can be avoided by thinking about the body’s position before beginning a job at hand. Although setting up saw horses or a ladder may take a bit more time, it will help to keep employees safer and healthier in the long run and decrease injuries on the job. Some of these changes may involve a cost to employers to implement, but they can also decrease the amount paid out in workers’ compensation claims.
The bottom line is ergonomic changes improve how the worker’s capabilities match the physical demands of the task to be performed. Enabling workers and increasing comfort helps them overcome the physical demands of the trade, meaning they can work safer, healthier, faster and longer.
KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe O’Connor edited this article.