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What Happens When the Pain Doesn’t Go Away?

It isn’t always talked about out in the open, but for many laborers, particularly those in construction, pain is an all-too-regular part of the job. Spending long hours on their feet, with much of that time devoted to lifting heavy loads or handling tools at awkward angles, takes a toll on workers’ backs, knees, shoulders and the rest of the body.

Raising buildings from the ground up, laying asphalt on highways or spending time in underground tunnels and trenches is hard work. It’s understandable that a strenuous day or a tough week might cause some muscle soreness or a strain that leaves workers wanting to take it easy in their off hours. They might even toss back a couple Advil or Motrin to help the situation.

But what happens if that pain doesn’t go away over time, but gets worse? Unfortunately, chronic pain is a reality for many laborers. Strains and sprains are the most common injury in the construction industry, making up about 40 percent of all injuries that cause missed work days.

These injuries put workers in a difficult situation because missing work often means not getting paid. When workers are faced with supporting their families or missing work due to a nagging injury, it’s no surprise that many of them choose to manage the pain the best they can.

It’s easy to see how two Advil could soon become four – the equivalent of a doctor-prescribed Ibuprofen 800 – just to keep a worker on the job. Besides putting users at risk for stomach ulcers and other health problems, the problem with regularly taking pain medication is that it doesn’t treat the problem itself – only the symptoms.

Too often in construction, workers are faced with chronic pain that makes it difficult to do their job effectively. A study by Harvard’s Center for Work, Health and Well-Being found that 65 percent of construction workers reported having joint and muscle pain that affected their ability to do their job.

Looking at the hierarchy of controls, the best way to prevent laborers from “working hurt” is to prevent the pain from occurring in the first place. Often this can be accomplished through better planning and changes in how materials are delivered, moved, stored and handled around the jobsite. The following procedures can reduce workers’ risk for developing chronic pain without sacrificing productivity:

  • Plan the job to minimize manual handling of materials that are too heavy or too large/awkward to carry comfortably.
  • Have materials delivered and stored as close as possible to where they will be used; this minimizes repeat handling.
  • Store materials off the ground (between waist and shoulder height, if possible) to minimize lifting, avoid twisting and make materials easier to load.
  • Maintain clear, level pathways to allow materials to be transported using carts, dollies or other equipment.
  • Use the correct tool for the job or task at hand. Ergonomically-designed tools are more comfortable and require less force to operate.
  • Use protective equipment like knee pads and shoulder pads to reduce the contact stresses of kneeling or carrying materials.

For those who choose construction as their calling, hard work is expected, even welcomed. But putting in a hard day’s work shouldn’t mean accepting chronic pain that never seems to heal. In addition, employers who protect workers from chronic pain experience lower direct costs (workers’ compensation claims) and lower indirect costs (lost productivity and taking time to train new workers when experienced workers are injured).

Chronic Pain Increases Risk for Opioid Abuse

Laborers are often prescribed painkillers like Codeine and Oxycodone after a serious injury, surgery or to deal with severe pain from health conditions like cancer. While effective, these drugs are extremely addictive and can lead users down a path toward dependence and abuse. To read more about this growing epidemic and its links to illicit drugs like heroin, see the LHSFNA’s article, “Chronic Pain and Opiate Addiction Don’t Have to Go Hand in Hand.”

The LHSFNA’s Ergonomics and Construction page includes more information on how to reduce sprains, strains and other musculoskeletal injuries on your jobsite. The Fund also offers several publications on this topic, including the Laborers’ Guide to Preventing Sprains and Strains in Construction, Back Injuries Health Alert and the Back Injury Prevention manual. To order these and other publications, visit the online Publications Catalogue at Publications or call 202-628-5465.

[Nick Fox]

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