Musculoskeletal injuries, which are injuries to the muscles, joints, or bones, are the most common injury problem in the construction industry. Ergonomics, a branch of industrial hygiene, identifies the risk factors that can cause these injuries and seeks to develop solutions to prevent their occurrence. Ergonomic changes, generally, are not expensive and can be very simple.
There are four main risk factors that cause musculoskeletal injuries:
- Awkward posture — positions that cause the body to stretch itself to the extreme, like overhead reaching, bending, stooping, and twisting.
- Forceful exertion — movements that require extreme force like pushing or pulling.
- Repetition and duration — performing the same movements over and over for an extended period of time.
- Contact stress — continuous pressure on the body from a hard surface or sharp edge.
Overcoming these risk factors starts with proper planning. The first consideration should be to minimize the time workers spend manually handling heavy materials. This can be accomplished by making sure crane time is available, forklifts are used as often as possible, and materials are delivered close to the work area. Materials that are not in use should be stored so they’re accessible and easier to reach, but not in the way of ongoing work. Try not to store materials above shoulder height or at ground level. You also need to ensure that walkways are clear so carts and dollies can be used easily to transport materials.
The next consideration is the kinds of tools and equipment being used. Ergonomically designed tools have a lighter weight, require less force to operate, fit the hand better, and are more comfortable to use. Workers should use carts, dollies, and hoists to move materials as much as possible rather than relying on physical strength. They should also use handles when carrying loads and protective equipment, such as kneepads and shoulder pads, to reduce the contact stresses of kneeling work or carrying materials. It’s also important to establish a weight limit for heavy loads above which an employee is required to seek help from a co-worker if a load needs to be moved.
Training is the third consideration in any effective ergonomics program to combat musculoskeletal injuries. Teach employees to incorporate stretching programs before work begins each day to help lessen the instances of injury. Workers and foremen should also be trained on how to identify ergonomic risk factors and how to report them. Finally, instill in your workers that they must report injuries no matter how slight as soon as they happen. They should never try to “work hurt.”