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Every jobsite is complex, and has plenty of safety precautions that need to be kept in mind. Unfortunately, as much as we worry about traumatic injuries such as breaks, burns, and falls, we tend to put others on the back burner. While the impact of traumatic injuries is clear and frightening, the insidiousness of problems such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) doesn’t tend to pop up until years down the line – so we don’t think about them in the immediate sense. Now’s the time to start doing so.
What Are Musculoskeletal Disorders?
Musculoskeletal disorders – generally abbreviated MSDs – are defined by OSHA as “disorders that affect the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons of the body.” In our context, it is specifically disorders stemming from job-related activities. Common MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, trigger finger, and muscle strains.
One of the biggest worries with MSD’s is that they can turn into long-term issues that never go away. It’s bad enough that they are one of the biggest causes of lost time – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 MSDs accounted for 32% of all days-away-from-work cases. For every 100,000 workers on record, 294 of them were affected throughout the year.
However, a study in the UK noted that in 2015-2016, there were roughly 539,000 work-related MSDs recorded, with roughly 176,000 being new cases. This means that the rest – 363,000 – are continuing, existing cases. That number is only going to increase, as for some workers, that disorder will be permanent. They will only be able to treat, exercise, and alleviate the pain, never getting rid of it for good.
MSDs are not just physically debilitating either. A 2015 study in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation noted that depression is common within the first year following a lost-time musculoskeletal injury, and if not addressed well in the first six months, can lead to long-term depression. It can also lead to poor outcomes when the injured worker returns to work, potentially affecting their career and long-term potential. Symptoms can range from a continuous low mood and low self-esteem, to a lack of physical or mental strength and changes in appetite.
Ergonomics on the Job Site
Ergonomics aren’t usually considered when you’re out on the job site, or when you’re designing a work station with the task in mind. Often, it’s more a concern of making sure the work gets done, and it’s left up to the employees to alleviate any personal pains.
There are five different ergonomic hazards that can arise on a job site or in a manufacturing space:
- Repetition: Doing the same task that uses the same muscle or muscle groups over and over again. This could include assembly-line jobs, as well as doing the same task on a construction site every day.
- Awkward Postures: Working with your body held in a position that is uncomfortable or unnatural for an extended period of time. This can be hard to recognize, as what is defined as “awkward” will change from person to person.
- Hand-Arm Vibration: Using power tools and other equipment, including heavy machinery operation or manufacturing equipment, can allow vibration to stress the arms and hands. Someone who runs a jackhammer every day, for instance.
- Contact Stress: Pressure from a hard object such as a tool handle on the soft body tissue. It could be the pressure coming from the worker, such as constantly pushing down on a lever, or it could be from machine recoil, such as a nail gun recoiling into a palm.
- High Force: Needing to use excessive muscle power to lift, push, grip tools, or turn objects. This could include pushing and pulling on tools, lifting boxes, and more.
What You Can Do
The best way to alleviate or avoid the impact of MSDs is to concentrate on job site ergonomics. This begins with strong management commitment to ergonimics improvements, whether proactively or reactively.
1. Lighten the Load
Consider lighter materials and tools to reduce strain. The less weight your workers need to handle, the less likely there is to be straining.
2. Early Problem Recognition
Identify ergonomic issues early with daily site walk-throughs to observe the job site and how workers function.
3. Training for Risk Mitigation
Train workers and managers to recognize risk factors, spot early signs of musculoskeletal injuries, and take preventive measures.
4. Stretch and Strengthen
Encourage stretch breaks and strengthening exercises, and provide the materials or courses that can be used. Give your team time on the clock if necessary to use – five or ten minutes of stretching a day could prevent weeks of lost time later.
5. Innovative Tools
Invest in innovative tools and equipment that reduce strain and discomfort, whether it be buying or renting. Toolmakers and inventors are constantly bringing new ideas to the manufacturing and construction industries, with everything from spring-assisted finishing tools, to universal drill rigs, to auto-feed screw guns aimed at reducing strain and vibrations, or making workers put themselves in awkward positions.
6. Regular Toolbox Talks
Utilize daily toolbox talks to reinforce ergonomics awareness, as training can fade over time.
7. Worker Involvement
Involve your workers in the process. They have valuable insights and may experience issues differently from management. What looks right to you may feel wrong to them, and vice versa. Have them assist in the process whenever able, and make sure to listen – if you don’t take their feedback on board, they may stop providing it.
8. Continuous Evaluation
Regularly assess progress and adjust solutions as needed. Ergonomic solutions are ongoing, not final.
Paying attention to daily ergonomics on the job site is the responsibility of everyone on site – the management, the workers, the safety officers, and anyone else who observes poor ergonomics. So keep on top of them, make sure everyone knows that they’re input is valued. By focusing on these practical steps and involving your entire team, you'll work toward long careers without the toll of MSDs.