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Preventing Sprains and Strains in Construction

Ever since the pyramids were built, we have known that construction work can cause sprain and strain injuries. In fact, they are the most common injuries in construction and the most costly.

Given these facts, you would expect the industry to work aggressively to address these problems. Until recently though, that hasn’t been the case. Many believed that these injuries – back injuries, knee problems, shoulder injuries, hand and wrist problems – were just part of the job. Also, because many jobs are short-term and workers change jobs and employers frequently, employers are reluctant to address chronic health risks.

Yet, about 15 years ago, attitudes began to change with the realization that ignoring these problems hurts the industry as a whole. Chronic musculoskeletal injuries were forcing 40- and 50-year-old skilled workers to retire early just when their skills were most valuable while also driving up health care and workers’ compensation costs. In the 1990s and 2000s, many insurance carriers and companies began “soft tissue” injury prevention programs. ANSI put out the A10.40 standard to help prevent these injuries. And the Laborers moved to the forefront with useful publications and webpages on “ergonomics and construction.” However, according to a new study by the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) of California, we have a long way to go.

In researching Creating the Climate for Making Ergonomic Changes, funded by CPWR, the BCTC interviewed or held focus groups with almost 100 contractor reps, union reps and workers in California. Researchers wanted to know what contractors are doing to prevent these injuries and what the barriers and opportunities are to increased prevention activities. Here is what they found:

  • Contractors and workers are well aware of this problem but are searching for effective ways to address it. Contractors, particularly, are looking for hard data showing potential solutions will be effective.Solutions are not considered acceptable, by contractors or workers, if they slow down the job or reduce productivity. Training of workers, supervisors, contractors and owners was identified as an important need.
  • Some solutions, like new tools or changes to manual handling, are well known. Stretch and flex programs have become popular. Job rotation is considered difficult because of the nature of the work. Planning is an important control strategy as well.
  • Barriers exist to wider implementation: Contractors are worried about reported injuries rising as they implement programs or being charged with injuries caused from previous employment. Workers want to be seen as good producers and worry about being labeled as injured workers or complainers so they often do not speak up and end up working through the pain. Better, safer tools are often more expensive and are not affordable for apprentices.
  • Potential solutions need evaluation to show their impact, not just on injuries, but on productivity. Awareness of available, effective solutions needs to be dramatically increased. Insurance carriers could be very helpful in pushing companies to implement programs and new solutions.
  • Campaigns to increase the use of solutions need to emphasize improved productivity and cost savings for contractors as well as health and family for workers.  They should avoid using the word “ergonomics” which is not as accepted by the industry. The internet is considered the best source for information about solutions.

The report made several recommendations including more research on effectiveness of solutions (including productivity and cost savings), doing a pilot campaign in one trade, developing contractor success stories, partnerships with OSHA and increasing education and awareness.

Despite the absence of an OSHA standard, many things can still be done – and need to be done – to help the industry prevent sprain and strain injuries. This report helps to put the focus on steps to move forward.

Two LHSFNA publications – Back Injury Prevention and Laborers’ Guide to Preventing Sprains and Strains in Construction – can help LIUNA members tackle these problems. They are available through the Fund’s online catalogue.

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

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