For a lot of people, a little pain at the end of a shift is the sign of an honest day's work. For those in the electrical construction industry, though, that pain can add up and lead to debilitating disorders. Tightness in the lower back can morph into fused disks. Cramped wrists can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. You might get some satisfaction from a physically taxing day on the jobsite now, but in a couple years you may wish you'd picked a different profession if you don't start working smarter.
Chronic pain conditions have gone by several names over the years. Whether you know them as repetitive stress injuries, cumulative trauma disorders, or musculo-skeletal disorders (or MSDs, as they're commonly referred to now), their causes are the same: repeatedly working hard in awkward postures. And unless you conveniently find a way to avoid all of the physically taxing jobs, you've probably felt the kind of pain that can be a precursor to an MSD.
Yet people who track MSDs and work to reduce them say the construction industry has been slow to actually admit it has a problem. Jeff Smagacz is an ergonomics consultant — a sort of guru on safe and efficient work processes — and after 10 years of advising clients on how to identify and solve potential problems of the pain persuasion, he's still surprised by the number of construction managers who deny that their workers are at risk. “Either because they don't recognize the problem or because they don't want to raise any flags, there's a significant amount of underreporting that goes on,” Smagacz says. “People are getting hurt on a regular basis [in the construction industry] but not being counted on the books.”
The management personnel he speaks to claim that construction work varies so much from day to day that repetitive motions aren't a problem. They may be deluding themselves, though, because repetition is only one part of the MSD equation. Humantech, an ergonomics consultant company, identifies the three factors that lead to MSDs as force, frequency, and posture. An employee doesn't need to drive thousands of screws to develop a chronic wrist injury. If enough force is applied and the wrist is bent, a significantly smaller number of turns can have the same effect.
Further complicating matters is the construction industry's transient nature. Unless a company has a fixed staff, it can be difficult to justify taking the time to implement preventive measures. “If they always had to use the same workers, I think managers would have a much different opinion of the issue,” says Dan Anton, an assistant professor in the department of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.
The fact is, those electricians will go on to work for someone else, and there's a good chance they'll be faced with the same problems. So the responsible foreman has to treat ergonomics as a site-specific issue instead of an employee-specific one.
Smagacz says when he explains that ergonomics is more than just a matter of health and safety, he gets a much better response. Some of the things that can lead to MSDs, like double- and triple-handling items or having to work in awkward positions, can actually reduce productivity. “They saw that it took them longer to do their jobs at lower quality,” he says. “Once they realized how it affected their production efficiency, they began to take much more interest.”
Anton has also found that the easiest way to convey the message is by speaking the language of money. The costs of a lost-time injury can be divided into two distinct categories: direct costs, which comprise medical bills and workman's comp, and indirect costs, which are defined by loss of productivity and quality. While the former is more visible and immediate, the latter is harder to recognize and much more expensive. Anton says indirect costs are typically five times higher than direct costs, so if you pay out $2,000 to treat an MSD-related injury, you'll likely lose another $10,000 in productivity.
But supervisors aren't the only ones who need to take more responsibility. Workers themselves tend to keep their mouths shut and play through the pain. Anton says electrical workers may know certain tasks shouldn't be so painful, but bravado often keeps them from raising concerns. “According to surveys we've conducted, the number one reason they don't report problems is that they don't want to be seen as weak,” Anton says.
They may not voice their concerns on the jobsite, but they're much more candid on paper, and what they have to say is sobering. “The University of Iowa Construction Survey,” co-authored by three of Anton's colleagues, found that more than two-thirds of electrical workers suffer from varying degrees of lower back pain. “That doesn't mean they're all going to end up needing lumbar disk surgery, but that prevalence is extremely high,” Anton says.
So whether or not you accept that electrical work could be slowly chipping away at your health or the health of your employees, the risks are there. The only question that remains is, What are you going to do about it?
Putting pain to rest. It can be difficult to determine how to prevent MSDs because researchers have to accurately quantify the risks — everyone seems to need a different level of exposure for one to set in. Smagacz compares the human body to a bucket and trauma caused by harmful work to drops of water. “Everyone has a different size bucket,” he says. “Some people have buckets the size of swimming pools, and some are the size of thimbles. So how quickly the bucket fills can vary greatly from one person to the next.”
Because the frequency necessary to do long-term damage is so varied, Smagacz says the next best thing you can do is reduce or eliminate the awkward postures. Just as you can prevent shock and electrocution by identifying the source of power and shutting it off before you start working, you can keep your joints and muscles in tact by learning what jobs will put you at risk of MSDs and finding safer ways to do the work.
The easiest way to identify a potentially harmful task is by listening to your joints. Do your shoulders ache after spending an afternoon installing overhead lights? If so, you could be asking for trouble. “You have to learn to trust your body,” says Mike Wynn, the vice president of Humantech. “If you're doing something and it's painful, you need to look at it and decide if there's another way to approach the work.”
If you and your body don't always agree, though, Wynn's company has made it even easier to measure risk. Ten years ago Humantech developed the Hit List, ten positions that have a high potential for leading to MSDs. The postures have easy-to-remember names and are depicted in a series of diagrams that point out the problems and suggest remedies.
Once they've convinced supervisors of the risks — both to worker health and to their bottom line — Anton and Smagacz say it's much easier to suggest ways to treat the problem. And that typically starts with implementing a training program. With the help of things like the Hit List, supervisors can show their employees how to identify the tasks that can cause MSDs.
Showing is much more effective than telling when it comes to recognizing risk factors, so videotapes can also help. It's always easier to see when someone else is doing something wrong, so Anton advises supervisors start by showing video of people on other worksites or in other trades and asking employees to point out the problems. The next step is showing videotape of their own colleagues or themselves. Then they'll be able to take what they learned from watching others and apply it to their own jobs.
Incorporating ergonomics on the job doesn't even have to be a scheduled appointment. Safety managers who routinely survey worksites for the proper use of hardhats and safety goggles can also start looking for those awkward postures.
Ultimately, though, the real effort has to come from you. Managers can't be responsible for policing every corner of the site at all times, so you have to take the initiative to learn the hazards and be conscious of whether you're putting yourself at risk. And because you're the one doing most of the work, you may be able to come up with some of the best solutions. “It's a mindset,” Anton says. “They have to say to themselves, ‘OK, if I bend over 4,000 times a day, it could cause me problems. So what can I do to avoid that? If I can get some parts up a little higher so I don't have to bend over as much, that will really help.’”
Once that culture sets in, the chances of having ergonomics success are bound to increase, and the chances of long-term problems will go down significantly. After years of doing a particular job one way, it can be difficult to change, but it's something that Anton says has to be done. “These are potentially life-changing disorders,” he says. “No one wants to go home at the end of day feeling worse than when they got there in the morning.”