It’s easy to think of on-the-job back ergonomics as relevant only for those workers relegated to desks eight hours a day. Everyone knows that the right chair, proper desk height, and other adjustments are key functional considerations for preventing back pain. But back injuries are actually one of the top claim costs in the construction industry. There are specific—and simple—ergonomics that can be implemented to prevent back pain and keep workers safer on the job-site. For the past 18 years, David Beauchamp, Senior Risk Management Consultant at Builders Mutual, has been highlighting back injury prevention, and here he shares some of his best tips for protecting those on the job-site.

When it comes to job-site safety, proper lifting and back injury prevention are often overlooked. Employers and supervisors tend to focus a lot on fall injury prevention and saw injury prevention, among specific potential incidents. These are the attention-grabbers because they can cause permanent injury or even death. Back injuries and back strains are always in the top four when it comes to claims. Depending on the year, this can actually be the top loss category in terms of dollar value, with an average claim amount exceeding $100,000.

For office workers, a back issue could exist, but the worker may still be able to do the work (albeit uncomfortably). However, for a foreman, superintendent, or tradesperson, doing any work at all is likely difficult (or impossible) with even a mild or moderate back injury. It’s vital for owners and managers to stress the importance of back care and injury prevention during safety meetings. If the company has a safety manager onsite, this individual will usually emphasize back health—because safety managers are the ones who see the claims.

Job-site athletes

Workers on the construction site must see themselves as athletes. For eight to 12 hours each day, they squat, climb, lift, and move quickly around their “field.” No one would ever expect a sports participant to be active for even a fraction of that time without stretching, taking breaks, and hydrating. Each of these activities plays a vital role in reducing the risk of musculoskeletal injuries—especially back injuries.

Just as with athletes, form is everything when it comes to performing safely—and effectively—on the job-site.

  • Lift with your legs, not your back. We all hear it. And we know it. But how many of us actually (or consistently) do it? Bending at the knees, not the waist, is a must to protect your back muscles and spinal column. It’s especially important not to bend and reach and lift—because this could be a herniated disc waiting to happen. Be mindful of the positions of your feet and hips relative to the shoulders. Think about moving your body as a unit, particularly when you need to pick up something and bring it up with a turn. Be mindful not to twist your spine.
  • Pay attention to posture when sitting and standing. Around the job-site, amid the hammering, sawing, nailing, sheetrocking, and roofing, there’s a lot of standing. Be sure your abdominals (core muscles) are contracted and your shoulders are back. Many construction workers—especially supervisors—spend a lot of time in the car. Here, it’s also important to engage your core, keep your shoulders back, and tuck in your chin a bit so your head is not jutting forward. These simple posture adjustments will make a big difference in your back health.
  • Think big. (Muscles, that is.) Focus on using the major (larger) muscle groups, which are significantly stronger than smaller muscle groups. Think of hand grip versus finger, for example. Similarly, because chest muscles are stronger than the thinner back muscles, it’s always better to push than to pull so you can minimize overload on the back.

Evaluate the risks—and determine solutions.

Your Builders Mutual Risk Management consultant can provide evaluation and training on back injury prevention. But every company should make ongoing assessment a routine part of job-site management.

First, look at tools and equipment, evaluating the ergonomic impact of use—and overuse. Even though the effects of some tools, like jackhammer vibration, are unavoidable, you still can determine how to eliminate overuse risk. Split up the workload or rotate crew members, for example.

Next, beyond the tools, assess the tasks and work routines themselves. For instance, for jobs that involve grip, are workers using a pistol or neutral grip? Certain trades are on their knees, reaching forward much of the day, while others are extending their arms overhead for long periods of time. Any consistent, repetitive positioning like these has a high risk for injury.

Supervisors need to assess squatting, lifting, twisting, and overreaching, and they must remind the crew to take breaks or determine if there’s a way to get the job done that is less likely to result in a back injury.

In addition to task assessment, solving for ergonomics can involve investing in tools that aid in proper positioning. For the person laying floors, the best investment for that company owner is in a top-quality pair of knee pads or even a kneeling creeper. This will positively affect posture, back muscles, and the whole skeletal structure—and can ultimately prevent a costly back claim. For decking or subfloor installs, instead of requiring workers to kneel on the ground and use pistol grips to nail or screw, provide extension sticks with triggers. That’s quicker and safer, and workers are not stooped over on their hands and knees.

Always have your employees’ backs.

It’s incredibly important to talk to employees about lifting properly and taking care of their bodies. Once back damage is done, it is not easily rehabilitated. When your company takes action to prevent back strain and injury, you’re not only helping to reduce claims costs, you’re also demonstrating care for your team. Most ergonomic tools are not expensive, and they’ll make your job-site safer and more efficient. These investments also go a long way toward employee loyalty. Walk the job-sites, see how employees are working—and care about back care.

Contact Builders Mutual to have your Risk Management consultant do a walk-through to point out likely ergonomic risks and help you prevent back injury.

Additional resources:

Builders Mutual’s Focus Four

Preventing Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) Among Construction Workers through Proper Ergonomics

Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Construction Workers