Strain, Sprain, and Ergonomics in Construction

Overexertion injuries are incredibly common in the construction industry, with thousands of hours of work lost each year as a result. In fact, these types of injuries, also called musculoskeletal disorders or MSD’s, account for a higher average number of days away from work per occurrence than all other non-fatal injuries on the job, according to safety training materials from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (OSHA’s parent body). Furthermore, overexertion injuries are the most expensive non-fatal on the job injury, accounting for over $12 billion in direct costs and losses each year. “Sprains and strains” is almost a misnomer, and doesn’t adequately communicate the very real danger of these types of injuries. In some cases, workers may even develop permanent or long term disabilities that stop them from pursuing their line of work altogether. In such cases, workers compensation and litigation costs can become so expensive that, depending on insurance and other variables, a small operation may be run bankrupt. While these are obviously worst-case-scenario situations, it is much better – and it’s your responsibility as an employer – to address strains and sprains in your workplace and implement a prevention program.

Ergonomics  and OSHA

Ergonomics is an umbrella term for fitting a job to a worker. Strain often comes from situations in which a worker is trying to lift, carry, or manipulate something beyond their safe range of motion. In general, this safe work zone is located between the waist and chest, and no more protruding from the body than the elbows. Beyond these points, the body is often contorted into awkward positions that present a threat for mild to severe muscle strain.

OSHA has developed various rule sets for different industries with regards to ergonomics safety and accommodation, but even if you fall within a specialty niche industry without specific rules, you aren’t, by any means, off the hook:

Even if there are no guidelines specific to your industry, as an employer you still have an obligation under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) to keep your workplace free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards. OSHA will cite for ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause or issue ergonomic hazard letters where appropriate as part of its overall enforcement program. OSHA encourages employers where necessary to implement effective programs or other measures to reduce ergonomic hazards and associated MSDs.

-OSHA – Ergonomics

There’s even a particular caveat for construction, due to the varied nature of commercial, residential, and service projects that a contractor or company might undertake, in which OSHA states that it is ongoing in its construction of MSD-related issues through “targeted inspections and response to worker complaints.” Furthermore, OSHA has stated it will actively contact and monitor companies with high rates of MSD’s.

Hmm. As an employer in the construction industry, it all sounds a little vague, doesn’t it? It’s probably best to have all of your bases covered. Let’s take a look at a few specific ways you can keep your workers clear of sprains, strains, and other ergonomics injuries.


Sprains and Strains in Construction


Policy Restrictions & Training

Because most overexertion injuries are a direct result of employee decision and behavior, the best things an employer can do is hope to alter the way in which their workers think and go about their daily work routines. Ultimately, a lot of the first line of responsibility will be on your workers, so you need to train them well enough to trust their judgment on potentially dangerous matters.

Part of this training needs to be adhering to company policies, which should seek to minimize strain risks. In the video example, this might mean requiring work like the activities depicted to only be done at chest height when possible, to that no overhead action is required. This is especially important when workers might be using potentially precarious elevation platforms, like ladders, to reach work – training workers to not climb the top rung of a ladder, use proper elevation equipment, and to work within a limited range of motion can all help to prevent problems when working at height.

When working below, a primary concern is going to be lifting. Educate your workers on proper lifting techniques so that they do not injure themselves. Additionally, you should have an appropriate policy weight above which workers are required to use lifting assistance technologies like forklifts, pallet jacks, and hand trucks.

Safety Culture

In addition to physical tools and limitations, policies and training that enforce a proper safety culture mindset are going to help your workers drastically. Safety culture, as a phrase, refers to the overarching attitude your workers have toward safety, in particular the policies you’ve put in place regarding their common, everyday tasks. Safety culture is often overlooked, but should be important to any employer as it can exert a very positive or very negative force on your business. If employees view your safety concerns as relevant, and your policies for prevention of incidents effective, safety culture will generally be positive, with workers sharing your passion for a safe, healthy work force. If, however, policies are viewed as overly restrictive, causing unneeded slowdowns, or aren’t considered “doing enough” to address a safety issue, safety culture will suffer.

Establishing adequate safety culture should be a part of any overall safety plan, so be sure to use it to your advantage. Safety culture also has its roots in training, so use training sessions to tell, in a compelling way, how you want your workplace to look. If you can do this then the rest – especially in employee behavior driven lines of safety such as strains and sprains – will fall into place. If your looking for a great way to start your ergonomic training, this Ergonomic Training DVD is a great training tool to get you started in the right direction.

Additional Resources