Preventing Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) Among Construction Workers through Proper Ergonomics

As a symbol of growth and progress, the construction industry is integral to the nation’s economy. However, construction is also one of the most hazardous and physically demanding occupations, frequently requiring workers to exceed their bodies’ natural limitations. As a result, construction companies often incur significant costs due to workplace injuries. While severe accidents and worksite fatalities garner substantial attention, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are among the most common, debilitating, and costly injuries that construction workers experience. Fortunately, implementing proper ergonomics principles offers a solution for reducing the risk of MSDs among construction workers. 

According to the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), MSDs—which include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, back pain, herniated discs, muscle strains, and more—are responsible for at least $45-54 billion of loss in the U.S. each year. Construction workers are particularly susceptible to MSDs as they generally spend their days engaging in repetitive motions, such as bending, kneeling, reaching, twisting, and lifting significant loads. Over time, these motions can lead to MSDs that may impede a worker’s ability to function optimally—or even cause lasting disabilities that preclude workers from continuing their careers.  

How can ergonomics benefit construction companies?

Ergonomics refers to the process of implementing solutions that will make a job safer and more comfortable for the worker performing it. While ergonomics has become a common facet of many workplace safety and wellness programs over the past several years, the construction industry—which traditionally has placed a high value on strenuous labor and accepted physical “wear and tear” as part of its culture—has generally been slower to adapt. Although construction companies face unique challenges in adopting an ergonomics program, including conditions that vary widely between different workers, roles, and job sites, proper ergonomics needs to play a significant role in improving a company’s bottom line. Here are a few compelling reasons why construction companies should prioritize ergonomics:

    • Health & Safety. Ergonomics can help prevent costly injuries—particularly MSDs. When workers develop injuries due to overuse of a body part, their employers may incur expenses related to healthcare, workers’ compensation, lost productivity, and the costs of replacing the worker if the injury is severe enough to preclude a safe return to work. By reducing physical strain over time, ergonomics plays a powerful role in preventing these injuries. 
    • Quality & Efficiency. When workers feel comfortable and pain-free, they are more productive and yield higher-quality results. Comfortable workers also tend to take fewer breaks and days off, thereby boosting overall workforce productivity. 
    • Human Resources & Workforce Management. Ergonomics can help improve workforce morale and employee retention. When workers are physically comfortable and feel that their employers genuinely care about their well-being, they tend to be happier, more loyal, and more committed to excellence in their roles—which ultimately bolsters the organization’s success. By reducing workforce turnover, companies can save money on the costs of recruiting and training new workers. 

Creating a successful ergonomics program in the construction industry

As construction companies strive to reduce the risk of MSDs among their workers, the following strategies may help them in developing successful ergonomics programs:

  • Conduct an ergonomics risk assessment. In the construction industry, ergonomics risks vary widely from worker to worker, task to task, and job site to job site. Therefore, the first step in finding solutions for preventing MSDs and other injuries is to examine the tasks that different workers perform and determine the likelihood and severity of risks that those tasks present. 
  • Implement formal ergonomics training for specific workers. Training is an essential way to ensure that workers have a basic understanding of ergonomics and its benefits, as well as the causes and early signs of MSDs. Considering that most construction workers already undergo a significant amount of safety training, keep the messages as specific as possible to avoid overwhelming them with information. 
  • Consider the benefits of asking workers to participate in a pre-work stretch-and-flex routine. Stretching is an integral part of the warm-up routine for most athletes. Considering that construction can be as physically demanding (if not more so) than many sports, construction workers should also begin their shifts by stretching and flexing in an effort to protect soft-tissue and joints from harm.
  • Establish safe lifting guidelines. Lifting is a core function of any construction worker’s job—and it is also a common source of injury. Set guidelines as to the maximum load that a worker can lift for example, the NIOSH lifting equation starts with 50 pounds under ideal conditions.  Encourage workers to use assistive devices when they need to lift heavier items in order to avoid exposure to stressors. In addition, provide guidance on specific techniques that reduce the risk of injury when lifting any heavy loads. Keeping frequently lifted items in the “power zone” between the shoulders and knees is a simple organizational change.
  • Facilitate open communication regarding ergonomics risks and solutions. Encourage workers to share their safety concerns, discomfort, and hazards they encounter, as well as solutions they have found to be helpful. Adopt a system for distributing this information to workers at other job sites and mitigating identified risks—ideally before they contribute to injuries. 
  • When appropriate, invest in tools and equipment that make tasks easier and reduce strain on workers. However, it is also important to ensure that any new equipment is a good fit for individual users based on size and maneuverability. We will address hand tools and equipment in another article.

Is your construction company taking the necessary steps to prevent MSDs and other costly injuries among workers? At Performance Ergonomics, our ergonomics experts can help your organization identify risks, develop an ergonomics training program, and implement specific solutions in order to reduce costs and improve workforce morale and productivity. Contact us today to schedule a consultation! 

(Sources: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/, https://www.ushealthworks.com/blog/2016/05/construction-workers-stretch-flex-program-reduces-risk-injuries-increases-productivity/index.html, https://www.onepetro.org/conference-paper/ASSE-14-726).

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