LAS VEGAS — Ergonomics generally hasn’t received the attention it needs in the construction industry, but that may be changing.
That’s according to presenters at the International Risk Management Institute Inc. Construction Risk Conference, who said the rising costs of musculoskeletal and soft-tissue injuries, particularly in an industry in which materials are heavy and the work can be repetitive, are helping make the case for improving ergonomics.
“Soft-tissue injuries are complicated,” said Allison Seijo, senior risk control consultant with Travelers Cos. Inc.’s construction practice. “They can happen from an acute injury. They can happen from repetitive motion.
“They can happen over years, over months, and they’re hard to diagnose and treat. It keeps workers off the job for longer periods of time.”
Ms. Seijo cited National Council on Compensation Insurance Inc. data that found in 2018 and 2019 that the average cost for a muscle strain or sprain was $34,000, equally split between indemnity and medical costs. Travelers released its own data showing that injuries caused by exertion represent 25% of comp claims.
“Financial impacts are significant,” Ms. Seijo said. “Soft tissue injuries have significant impact on the construction industry as insurance costs increase through elevated experience modification rates.”
One only need spend time on a construction site to see the issues, Ms. Seijo said.
“It could be the tradesmen or women on ladders working overhead, workers carrying materials back and forth across the jobsite, the operator outside working in a heavy piece of machinery, or even the masons outside brushing concrete,” she said.
“It’s almost the expectation to see these types of actions performed on a jobsite but the fact of the matter is, we need to use modernization to our advantage,” she said. “We are at a turning point in the industry where we need to work smarter, not harder, to help drive an industry that has been so ingrained with the status quo of physical manual labor.”
Michael Gonzales, a senior account consultant at Travelers, said injuries rooted in incorrect ergonomics stem from such factors as posture, frequency, force, pushing or pulling, and duration of work. “We have demands that outweigh capabilities,” he said.
New technologies are helping employers zero in on and correct issues with movement, he said.
One technology enables a safety inspector or supervisor to record a worker in motion, and upon analysis of the video, target body parts that are at risk for injury. It’s then up to the employer to provide engineering controls or other mechanisms to correct the issue or eliminate the risk.
The solution can be as simple as providing a shelf to keep materials off the floor and easier to access without bending, Ms. Seijo said. Using a platform instead of a ladder to work on a ceiling is another example.
Mr. Gonzales said a selling point for making such ergonomic changes is the return on investment as a result of fewer injuries, he said.
Ms. Seijo added that “sometimes the benefits are intangible.”
“Think about this aging workforce. The last thing you need are good people out of work or retiring early because they’ve had a soft tissue injury,” she said. “In the long run, if we can keep workers working longer and safer … it’s going to have a significant long-term effect on the construction industry as a whole, especially in certain trades that are very physically labor intensive.”