Getting a Grip on Ergonomics for Construction Workers
Ergonomics for construction workers is about how hand tools are made and the way workers use them.
By Jim Cook
Ergonomics isn’t just about structured office chairs and standing desks. It’s about designing workplaces and tools in a variety of industries – including construction – to fit the people who use them, increasing their on-the-job efficiency and reducing their chances of injury.
Construction work is physically demanding, and constant wear and tear on the body often results in musculoskeletal disorders. Overexertion of muscles, awkward body postures, repetitive work and vibration from tools all contribute to musculoskeletal disorders. These problems most frequently affect the hands, wrists, knees, necks, backs and hips of construction workers.
“Low back and neck pain are No.s 1 and 2, respectively,” says Dr. Kevin Hayes, chair of Osteopathic Principles and Practice at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dothan, Ala. “I see it all and treat it, head to toe.”
According to the study “Occupational and Environmental Medicine,” data from the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that work-related musculoskeletal disorders decreased between 1992 and 2014, following the trend for all industries. However, construction laborers still had the most musculoskeletal disorders. The study found that construction workers lost $46 million in wages because of missed time at work, due to these injuries.
Hayes frequently sees construction workers at the NeuroSpine Center, also in Dothan, with somatic dysfunction, a medical diagnosis made when abnormal neuromusculoskeletal sensory motor patterns develop. Hayes says a reluctance among construction workers to address the problem often compounds it.
“When an individual is biomechanically stressed or in pain and just ‘muscling through it’ in an energy-inefficient pattern, it will affect them psychologically,” Hayes says. “I see patients who live with chronic pain but still work, and the majority of them suffer depression. It is very common, and they do not admit it because they have bills to pay.”
Answering the call
The high rate of musculoskeletal disorders among construction workers makes it clear: The industry needs to step up its focus on ergonomic tools and practices. The construction industry has many options to make workplaces more ergonomic, including training workers to perform tasks in a way that minimizes the chance of musculoskeletal injury, and using the best tools designed with human comfort and function in mind.
“Ergonomics for construction workers plays an important role in reducing injuries. Many construction workers often work in cramped spaces, have awkward postures, carry heavy materials, and are exposed to vibration from tools and equipment. These exposures can result in musculoskeletal disorders, back injuries and other adverse health effects,” says Dr. Christine Branch, director of the Office of Construction Safety and Health for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Hayes says adopting good work habits in professions where repetitive strain, motion and torque are frequent can go a long way toward preventing or lessening musculoskeletal disorders. Workers need to be trained to be mindful of biomechanics and should use stabilizing devices, such as sacroiliac belts, lumbar bracing, foot/ankle/knee bracing, appropriately. Postural training from professionals who are board certified in neuromusculoskeletal medicine is also beneficial, Hayes says.
Tool design can go a long way toward reducing the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders. Jim Bohn, director of strategic development for the Robert Bosch Tool Corp., believes ergonomics for construction workers is directly related to jobsite efficiency, especially for workers laboring in production-type endeavors. Good ergonomics allow ease of use, comfort, precision and speed.
How ergonomics for construction workers can help
Jason Swanson, vice president of communications for TTI Power Equipment, says a key concern of tool designers is identifying specific aspects or areas of tools that must fit and work with users. Once designers identify these areas, they can develop multiple options to effectively address them.
“It all boils down to repeated strain on the users’ joints and muscles,” Swanson says. “Identifying the specific location of such strain is important to resolving these issues.”
Swanson adds that the best ergonomic designs require little or no training for workers to make use of features.
“Good design goes unnoticed,” he says. “The same goes for good ergonomics for construction workers. When properly designed, the use of such should be perfectly natural, requiring no adjustment of the user’s behavior to do so.”
Bosch’s Bohn says a good understanding of each tool’s features is important to getting its full benefit, however: “Ergonomic design does not require training, per se, but hands-on users should understand why design functions take the form they do.”
Bosch includes features to control kickback and vibration since, according to Bohn, kickback control gives the user the benefit of “tool-sensing technology.” This will stop a drill’s rotation during bind-up situations, reducing the risk of injury. Bosch has reduced vibration in its tools by incorporating enhanced gearing at the front of the tool and near the handle.
“By addressing both areas of the tool, users benefit from greater comfort and ease of use that translates to improved health and safety,” Bohn says, adding that Bosch has incorporated “electronic precision control” into its devices, which results in a 70 percent soft-start that ensures no walking or skating upon starting the tool.
The future of construction ergonomics
Research into new innovations in ergonomics for construction workers continues. Swanson says TTI is working on personal customization features that will make tools more comfortable for individual users. The technology actually maps ergonomics to the specifics of individual users’ hands and capabilities.
However, ergonomics for construction workers has its cost. Swanson says developing more ergonomic tools can make them more expensive at times. As new ergonomic technologies mature, however, they become more affordable.
“Good design can often reduce the tool cost by reducing its complexity in part count, assembly, etc.,” he says.
Future developments in human machine interface will have lasting impacts on the tool industry, says Bohn. “For example, the basic interface for heat and speed will be easier to find on the tool and become more intuitive to recognize between the tool and the user,” he says. “The next step in HMI is connectivity – the Internet of Things. The potential for breakthrough design and greater productivity is there.”
With better posture and motion, and better designed tools, workers in the construction industry can reduce their risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders. Even better, good ergonomic practices and equipment can help laborers work more efficiently.
Ergonomic Tips Using Power Tools
- Use the right tool for the job. Never use a tool for a job it wasn’t designed to perform. Assure you’re familiar with your tools, and know how to use them properly.
- Select tools that fit the hand comfortably, have soft grips that don’t cut into your hand, and aren’t too heavy.
- Select tools with reduced vibration and noise levels.
- Keep secure footing and balance when you use tools. The area where you’re standing shouldn’t be slippery or cluttered.
- Use tools on a stable work surface. Hold the work with a vise or clamps, if necessary.
- Use tools in a well-lit area.
- Avoid awkward positions when using power tools. Some tools are poorly designed and force you to work with unnecessary strain on your wrist, arm, shoulder or back. Use tools with a better design.
- Assure you have enough work space, and can keep your body at a comfortable angle, to work.
- Adjust the position of the tool or the orientation of the work surface to minimize bending your wrist or body, reaching or twisting.
- Keep tools where they belong. Never leave them on a ladder, scaffold or overhead work space.
- Keep them where they won’t fall on or trip someone.
- Don’t use powder-actuated tools unless you have a valid operator’s card for the specific tool involved. You need special training.