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Ergonomics and Construction/Technical Workers

Why is it Important? 

These types of workers are involved in tasks that utilize a variety of skills that change on a daily basis. There are times when the demands call for heavy work and the handling of heavy loads and at other times these workers are involved with tasks that require a high degree of fine skills.  

In general it is to the advantage of the worker when there is more variety within any working day to avoid repetition and boredom. Regardless, these types of jobs expose workers to a wide range of ergonomic pitfalls that are a challenge to safety and occupational longevity. 

Trade Specific Risks 

The construction or building site is the common ground that brings together building carpenters, electricians, locksmiths, cement workers and other contractors and there is an overlap in the skills they bring to their work and the diverse tools they use. Different trades vary as to the levels of risk associated with them. Preparation and planning become important as safety and efficiency factors are every worker's priority.  

Workers are always at risk of injury from accidents in these work environments and protocols of safety should always be closely followed. Sprain and strain injuries are especially high in the construction industry while cumulative trauma disorders (CTD) such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome(CTS) tend to be higher in manufacturing. In fact, these types of injuries are about 50% higher in construction than in manufacturing. However, because manufacturing involves jobs that tend to have a shorter cycle and are therefore much more repetitive cumulative trauma disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis are more common in the manufacturing industry.

The construction workers at greatest risk for injury are the laborers, carpenters, drywall installers and roofers. As would be expected those trades that require the most kneeling such as roofers, floorlayers, and sheet metal workers have the highest prevalence of knee injuries

Avoiding Back Injuries From Heavy Lifting 

The carrying of heavy loads should always be shared when it is the most ergonomically efficient way of preventing fatigue or injury. Low back injuries prevail with loads that are excessively heavy, awkward or when there is twisting involved. In this case a lifting belt should be used and if the load cannot safely be brought close to the body before being lifted at least two people should share the load.  

The lifter should face the load while lifting using correct lifting technique; with back straight while letting the legs do the work. Repetitious loading and carrying is much more efficient when the load is of manageable weight and lifted at approximately waist level. Correct lifting techniques are critical even for lifting light objects as they often involve repetition, lifting from ground level with a tendency to twist at the waist. Considering the fact that these workers are at high risk for developing a debilitating low back injury it is significant that these techniques are almost never taught to these workers in conjunction with the more skillful work they learn.                                           

Mechanization and Material Innovations 

With changes in construction materials to lighter and easier to handle loads and the tendency for the industry to become more mechanized, some of the manual aspects previously associated with construction have been modified.  

For example, in the past few years masonry blocks have been developed that are lighter in weight than the traditional bricks. In Germany blocks have been developed with hand-holds built into them to make lifting easier. Drywall workers are particularly at risk due to the weight and awkwardness of the four-foot boards they handle especially when working overhead. In Sweden three-foot wide boards have been promoted and lighter boards will be available in the future.  

Much heavy work is now done by cranes and hoists for material handling. Scissors lifts are safer than the old style scaffolding and boom trucks replace some of the human burden of lifting materials to the roof level. In the roofing industry specialized power tools like roof cutters, powered brooms, gravel removal and powered roof tear-off equipment have decreased injuries with roofers. In addition asphalt can now be pumped to the roof level in the same way as concrete.

Changes in Tool Design 

Repetitive or cumulative injuries like tendonitis tend to be much more common in occurrence with jobs that lack variety or in situations where the same tools are used with a great deal of repetition. It is therefore imperative to use ergonomically designed tools that prevent sustained abnormal wrist positions. Tools also include pipe stand racks that prevent unnecessary bending in the workers job. Workers can also work from a standing position through the use of roofing insulation guns and screwguns for flooring.  

Power tools are more efficient that manual tools in that they spare unnecessary physical energy and help prevent muscle injury syndromes. These tools are now available with vibration dampening components built into them. Hearing loss is totally preventable by always using protective earplugs while utilizing power tools or while exposed to excessive noise levels. 

Workers in these occupations are frequently exposed to situations where there is a threat to eye injury. Such injuries can almost always be prevented with the protective eyewear that is available today. Keeling on the ground for sustained periods should always be avoided unless kneepad protection is used. Similar shoulder pads are available for workers who frequently carry materials on their shoulders such as lumber. 

Safety Issues

Jobsite accidents are reduced when subcontractors take the initiative to clean up the site and keep it safe for all workers. Structuring the work in a way that demanding jobs can be rotated with work that is less demanding reduce both the risk of chronic and acute injury. Appropriate clothing is important for comfort and safety reasons. Clothing provides protection from building materials, toxic substances and from sunlight. Prolonged exposure to sunlight presents a genuine hazard sorely overlooked especially by roofers and those workers not under roof. 

In terms of footwear, steel-toed boots provide excellent protection from dropped or falling objects in the same way that helmets are important while working on multilevel construction sites. Boot insole pads are available for workers who spend most of the day walking on cement as this is known to cause low back fatigue. Appropriate gloves must be worn that do not interfere with the dexterity of the fingers but at the same time afford protect of the skin from such things as wood splinters and blistering.                                                        

In summary, these occupations are physically demanding and if longevity is expected in these types of careers foresight is essential in preventing the injuries that come with these work environments.  

Schneider, Scott P. "Ergonomics in the Construction Industry." The Occupational Ergonomics Handbook. Ed. Waldemar Karwowski and William Marras. Boca Raton: CRC Press, LLC, 1999