Ergonomic Solutions: Small changes make a big difference

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Construction work is hard work, and construction workers feel the results.  In one survey, seven out of ten construction workers from 13 trades reported back pain, and nearly a third went to the doctor for it. Some of the most common injuries in construction are the result of job demands that push the human body beyond its natural limits.

Workers who must often lift, stoop, kneel, twist, grip, stretch, reach overhead, or work in other awkward positions to do a job are at risk of developing a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (WMSD). These can include back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff tears, sprains, and strains. In fact, the number of back injuries in U.S. construction was 50 percent higher than the average for all other U.S. industries. Backaches and pain in the shoulders, neck, arms, and hands were the most common symptoms reported by construction workers in one study.

The best way to reduce WMSDs is to use ergonomic principles (or ideas) to improve tools, equipment, materials, or work processes. Simple changes can make a big difference. Using ergonomic ideas to improve tools, equipment, and jobs reduces workers’ contact with those factors that can result in injury.

This article identifies 5 common problems faced by construction workers.  For each of these problems, the use of one specific tool can reduce strain on the worker to prevent the development of WMSDs.

Problem #1: When working at floor or ground level, construction workers often use screw guns and other fastening tools that require stooping, bending, kneeling, or squatting for long periods of time, which may result in fatigue, pain, and injury.

Solution: Use an auto-feed screw gun with an extension that allows you to stand upright while working. Standing while you work keeps your spine and knees in a neutral position, minimizing strain and muscle fatigue. Many stand-up tools have adjustable lengths to fit workers of different heights. Stand-up screw guns that automatically feed the screws are available. Powder-actuated fastening tools (PATs) can be used with a stand-up handle provided by the manufacturer.

Approximate Cost: Stand-up screw guns are $200-400. PAT fastening tools with stand-up handles are $500-700. The PAT handles can also be purchased separately.

Problem #2: When you hand screed concrete, you work bent over, and you have to use a strong grip to pull the board over the wet concrete. Your arms and shoulders exert a lot of force over and over. Doing this work often or for a long period of time increases your chance of fatigue and pain. It puts major stresses on your back, knees, hands, arms, and shoulders, which may lead to serious muscle or joint injuries.

Solution: Use a motorized screed (also called a vibratory screed). You can work standing upright, and operating the screed takes much less effort than hand screeding. This type of screed eliminates both screeding in a stooped position and the need for repeated arm and shoulder movements.  The motorized screed consists of a blade or plow that floats on the concrete, one or two gasoline motors that vibrate the blade, metal support tubing, and handles to hold when you operate it. It works best for small to medium-sized jobs. You can work standing upright, and operating a motorized screed takes much less effort than hand screeding. Use a vibratory screed powered by a portable (battery-powered) screw gun in basements and other enclosed places to prevent overexposure to carbon monoxide.

Approximate Cost: A single-engine motorized screed costs around $1,500. A twin-engine model costs around $4,000 and requires two operators.

Problem #3: Using powder-actuated fastening tools (PATs) for overhead work may lead to serious shoulder, arm and hand injuries.  You work with your arms above your shoulders, an awkward position that may cause sore muscles and joints.  Sometimes you have to hold this difficult position for a long time, or repeat the position over and over during your shift.  This can cause fatigue and eventually lead to arm and shoulder problems like bursitis or rotator cuff tendinitis.

Solution: Use an extension pole for overhead work.  This is a fixed height or modular pole attached to the powder-actuated tool. Using the extension, the tool is entirely out of your hand.  All you have to do is squeeze the trigger.  You no longer need to raise your arms above your shoulders and hold them there to work on the ceiling.  The extension does it for you.  The extension lets you keep a more neutral body posture.  Your arms are closer to your body and below your shoulders.  This cuts down on the risk of injury to your shoulders, arms, and hands.  There is also less recoil shock directed to your shoulders and neck.  In addition, you can work on the ground rather than using a ladder, scaffold, or lift.

Approximate Cost: A modular pole assembly costs from $300-400.  But keep in mind, if ladders, scaffolds, or lifts were rented for this work in the past, you will no longer have this cost.

Problem #4: A regular concrete block can weigh up to 50 pounds, depending on the size.  For masons and mason tenders, lifting and placing blocks can cause fatigue and put strain on the low back, hands, and arms. If you do this work often, you may be at risk of a serious muscle or joint injury.  The risk depends on how many units you handle, how heavy they are, how often you work with them, how low they are stored, and how high you have to reach to place them on the course. You have even more risk if you twist your body when lifting or holding blocks, or if you lift or hold them with one hand.

Solution: Use lightweight concrete block. Units weigh 30-40% less than regular block without sacrificing strength or performance. Working with lightweight block can improve your output during the day and still decrease the total weight you lift. Less weight means you will be less tired and there will be less stress on your back, hands, and arms.
Approximate Cost: Lightweight block costs slightly more per unit than standard block. However, since masons and mason tenders can work faster and better, there should be a reduction in labor cost. This can account for up to 80% of the finished wall cost. Shippingand handling costs may be lower as well.

Problem #5: Cutting sheet metal with snips takes a lot of hand force.  You often need to work with your wrist in an awkward position.  If you do this work often or for long periods of time, you may experience hand or wrist pain. Eventually you may develop a serious injury.  Using the wrong snip for the job increases your chance of injury. Manufacturers produce different snips for specific tasks and specific workers.

Solution: Use the right size and type of snip.  New types of snips are available that may fit your hand better, keep your wrist straighter, and require less hand force. Any snip you use should be sharp and tight. Do not use dull or damaged snips. Where necessary use compound snips, which provide much more power. Some compound snips will increase your hand strength by 12 times. Improvements found in the newer snips include less space between the handles, soft grips and curved handles. Using a curved handle can help keep your wrist straight for certain tasks. A soft grip lowers the pressure on your hand and fingers. When there is less space between handles, you may be able to get a better grip on the tool. An upright snip can help keep your wrist straighter when working in confined areas or overhead.

Approximate Cost: The best snip for the job should not cost much more than other snips.  Newer snips are often between $10-40.

This article was adapted from a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health publication, Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Construction Workers (Albers & Estill, 2007). For more information and to view the complete publication,  visit http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/construction/.

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