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Tracking Sprain and Strain Trends in the Construction Industry

Construction workers have demanding jobs, and that’s especially true for construction laborers. A laborer’s job often involves a lot of lifting and carrying heavy materials, such as concrete forms and drywall, as well as working overhead and at ground level and using heavy, vibrating tools like jackhammers or drills. So it’s no surprise that they suffer from a high rate of sprain and strain injuries.

The technical term for these injuries are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – injuries that affect our soft issues, like the muscles and tendons. There are three main risk factors for MSD-related injuries, which are: excessive force, repetitive motion and prolonged awkward work postures. This damage to muscles and tendons leads to acute injuries that can keep construction laborers off the job for weeks at a time (e.g., a back injury), but the damage also accumulates over time. This can shorten a worker’s career and have a significant impact on their quality of life in retirement.

Fortunately, a new Quarterly Data Report from the CPWR – the Center for Construction Research and Training – titled “Trends of Musculoskeletal Disorders and Interventions in the Construction Industry,” provides some promising news about progress made in preventing these types of injuries. When comparing MSDs reported in 1992 with those reported in 2017, researchers found:

  • The rate of MSDs in construction has dropped from over 500 per 10,000 full-time workers in 1992 to less than 150 in 2017.
  • The number of MSDs resulting in lost workdays also dropped significantly, from about 60,000 injuries per year to less than 20,000 in 2017.
  • Other industries, including transportation, healthcare and wholesale/retail trade now have higher rates of MSDs than the construction industry.

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“We’ve made significant progress reducing the number of MSDs in construction, and our members and signatory contractors should be proud of that,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan.

Along with these positives, researchers also found several trends to watch out for in construction:

  • The average number of missed work days for an MSD used to be eight; that number has increased to about 14.
  • The largest percentage of MSDs are back injuries, but there were also a significant number of shoulder and knee injuries.
  • The largest number of MSDs occur in building construction, building finishing and plumbing/HVAC work, but the risk is highest among tile/terrazzo workers.
  • Construction laborers have the highest number of MSDs (being one of the largest trades), but the rates of injury are higher for “helpers,” sheet metal workers, ironworkers and truck drivers. Painters, brick masons, electricians and operating engineers have lower injury rates.

One trend that’s remained constant over the years, however, is low-back pain. About 30 percent of all construction workers report low-back pain. These rates increase with age and peak at almost 60 percent among the 55+ age group. Rates of arthritis and joint pain among construction workers also increases with age, to over 27 percent in the 55+ age group.

So, what conclusions can we draw? Progress has been made, but MSDs are still a major problem in construction, causing almost 20,000 workers to miss time every year. Workers who do get injured are out of work for longer, indicating those may be more serious injuries, and we are not seeing a decrease in self-reported back and joint pain. There’s still plenty of work to do to prevent these injuries from happening. The emphasis on prevention should always start with reducing risk through planning the work and minimizing activities like manual handling and overhead work.

Designing tasks to help prevent MSDs, switching to tools that require less force and changing how materials are handled on the job are not complicated changes, but they require an ongoing commitment from employers and a concerted effort from workers.

For more information on reducing sprain and strain injuries on your jobsite, see our August 2017 article, “Design Your Jobsite to Keep All Laborers Working Safely”. LIUNA District Councils, Local Unions, signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates can also order the Laborers’ Guide to Preventing Sprains and Strains in Construction pamphlet, the Choosing Safe Hand Tools in Construction health alert and the Back Injury Prevention manual from our online Publications Catalogue.

The CPWR’s Best Built Plans program and Site Planning Tool can also help employers take steps to reduce MSDs on their jobsites.

[Scott Schneider]

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