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Not Everything Is a Box

Laborers do a lot of heavy lifting and the result is a high risk of back injury. The best approach to reduce the risk of injury is to look at the most strenuous tasks that have to be performed and examine how that job could be made easier. This practice not only reduces the risk of injury – it allows a greater number of workers to perform it safely.

However, when back injuries do occur, workers are sometimes told the real problem is they are not “lifting correctly.” Construction laborers often hear the old adage “lift with your legs, not your back.” A quick Google search shows plenty of examples, but many of these images share a common problem: everything is not shaped like a small box, especially in the construction industry.

Many construction materials come in vastly different shapes, sizes and weights. How does proper lifting technique help with picking up rebar, which is long and thin, from the ground? How does it help with picking up drywall, which is large and awkward? What about bags of cement mix, which normally weigh 90 pounds? Even concrete blocks, which are about the right size and shape, can be difficult to lift because they don’t have handholds. Normally, mason tenders and other construction laborers will lift hundreds of blocks per day.

Safe Lifting Practices

Biomechanics, the science of how our bodies work physically, can show us safer ways to move materials. Computer models can analyze the stresses lifting places on the spine, but even computers have a hard time modeling more complex lifting situations, as manual lifting quickly becomes a pretty complicated physics problem. However, from these models, we know certain principles:

  • It helps to keep the material being lifted close to your body;
  • It helps if materials have good handles and can be lifted from the top;
  • It is safer if the material being lifted begins off the ground (preferably at waist height, but not above the shoulders);
  • The height objects are lifted to is also important (i.e., it’s best to lift something to between waist and shoulder height);
  • The frequency of the lift is important (i.e., repetitive lifting for long periods is dangerous);
  • The material’s weight is critical. NIOSH says you should never lift anything that weighs more than 51 pounds by yourself; and
  • Avoid twisting and lift with your legs and at waist height as much as possible.

Reducing the Frequency and Duration of Manual Lifting on Site

Many construction materials are very heavy (and getting heavier all the time with the rise in modular construction) and are normally lifted by cranes, while others are small and easily moved by hand. The problem lies in those mid-range materials weighing between 20 and 75 pounds that construction workers are usually expected to move by hand. If safe lifting technique isn’t always the answer or isn’t possible, it’s time to think outside the box.

  1. Try to change the way materials are stored. If they can be stored off the ground, lifting them becomes much easier.
  2. Have materials delivered close to where they will be used to minimize the amount of carrying required. Proper planning is essential.
  3. Consider which materials need to be lifted and carried by two people. Coordinated lifts pose their own challenges but are better than one person lifting too much.
  4. Carrying materials long distances should be replaced by carts or dollies, which require a clean, level pathway to roll over. Carrying can also be made easier by adding handles.
  5. Think about ways to eliminate human material handling, such as using silos to deliver cement to a mixer. It is always best to eliminate heavy lifting where possible.

Safe lifting practices are helpful, but we need to do more than teach workers to lift better. By looking at lifting from several different vantage points and rethinking how we work, it’s possible to solve lifting problems and prevent injuries in the construction industry. In the end, working “smarter, not harder” is the key.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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