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Construction: Long-Term Risks of Repetitive Strain Injuries

When the term repetitive strain injuries is mentioned, it is easy to think that this is something that affects a limited number of people in office settings especially. However, the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that repetitive strain injuries are the country’s most common and costly occupational health problem regardless of industry. This issue affects thousands of American workers and it costs upwards of $20 billion a year in workers compensation. Often overlooked and affected workers, are those who work in construction.

Repetitive strain injuries are also known as cumulative trauma disorders or work-related musculoskeletal disorders, and they happen due to overuse of various body parts. Construction workers are not immune to these types of injuries considering the number of tasks they perform above the head and their use of vibrating hand tools, which are uncomfortable and of poor design normally. Workers need to know that they are at risk of suffering these types of injuries as well and, the effects they have on the longevity of their careers.

Sprained foot

What Causes Repetitive Strain Injuries?

The human body was not meant to be positioned in certain ways for long periods of time. Nor was it built to withstand the kind of punishment that gets dealt out daily on construction sites all over the country. For example, tendons are tissue that helps hold together joints like the shoulders and knees. With regular activity, tendons break down every day and the body simply replaces the damaged parts with a good night’s sleep. But with repeated activity such as bending and holding your arms over your head for hours a day, the tendons never get a chance to recover and the resulting damage can be painful and permanent.

The way a construction worker uses their body is what determines the severity of the repetitive strain injuries they get. The most common types of these injuries are:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Tendonitis (the permanent inflammation caused by the inability of the body to repair tendons.)
  • Rotator Cuff Tendonitis (a specific form of tendonitis that makes it extremely painful to raise or lower the arm.)
  • Tennis Elbow (created primarily by the intense twisting motions of the wrists and forearms caused by using the wrong kind of tools for the job.)
  • Raynaud’s Syndrome (permanent damage to the trigger finger that is used to operate a drill or cordless screwdriver.)

The problem is that many repetitive strain injuries are the result of years of several different types of activities that all conspire to cause more than one type of condition. In many cases, there is no way to reverse the damage and workers are forced to live with the pain for the remainder of their lives.

What Types Of Activities Trigger These Injuries?

As many as 10 million American adults in their late 40s and early 50s are afflicted with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome every year. While many of these instances can be treated, some are ignored to the point where major surgery is required. This is just one type of repetitive strain injury that affects millions of people every year, and the numbers of those affected keep growing.

There is no direct correlation between one single activity and an associated strain injury. Each construction worker experiences a different combination of symptoms that lead to different experiences. But the most common types of repeated activities that cause these injuries include:

  • Pushing, pulling, lifting, or grabbing using excessive force
  • Constantly contorting the body to reach tools and materials that are not close by
  • Holding certain types of positions (such as reaching over your head) for long periods of time
  • Pressing tools against parts of the body to apply necessary pressure
  • Moving too quickly while performing certain kinds of tasks
  • Vibrations caused by tools such as drills, jackhammers, and nail guns
  • Not being given enough time off to recover from work

One of the biggest problems with these types of injuries is that the activities that cause them are often a necessary part of construction. Using many of the tools available today requires that workers make these motions and absorb these punishments in order to get the job done. When workers are not given sufficient time off between jobs to recover, then long-term worker health will be affected.

Is There A Solution To Prevent These Injuries?

The fact is that while construction tools were designed to get the job done right, few were designed with the worker in mind. There are ergonomic solutions that can be used to create a healthier workplace and prevent these repetitive strain injuries.

Ergonomics is the process of getting workplace activities to conform to the physical needs of the worker instead of forcing the worker to punish their bodies to get work done. In an office setting, ergonomics means specially designed computer keyboards, desk chairs, and computer workstations that make everything easier for the worker to use. In a construction setting, it means creating work situations that do not put unnecessary strain on the body.

In some situations, construction ergonomic solutions are a simple matter of providing the proper layout for workers. It means making sure that all tools and materials are within a worker’s comfortable reach, and that all overhead tasks are done using tools that do the reaching for the worker. Ergonomics means finding better-designed tools that perform the physically demanding tasks that cause permanent damage to employees.

Another solution that construction companies need to consider is stopping the practice of literally working employees to death. American workers put in hundreds of more hours each year than most of their European counterparts, and the combination of bad ergonomics and too many hours is causing American workers to have to retire long before the age of 65.

Strain Injuries Leading To Early Retirement In Workers

The most important thing for construction companies to remember is that, even though the causes and conditions are generally the same, the effect on each worker is different. The construction industry needs to start monitoring these injuries and learning how to prevent and treat them.

Construction site working tools

The rate of construction worker deaths among workers 55 years of age and older is almost 80 percent more than workers in their 20s and 30s. Older workers are suffering from years of abuse to their bodies, and their ability to react properly to dangerous situations is compromised. Not only does the construction industry need to study repetitive strain injuries to learn how to treat them, it needs to recognize that the damage done by these injuries to older workers compromises these workers’ ability to be safe on the job. Treating all construction workers the same is a situation that is putting older workers with strain injuries in jeopardy.

When the general public thinks of construction injuries, they think of fractures and massive joint sprains. However, the real dangerous injuries in construction take years to develop and can cause a lifetime of pain. Repetitive strain injuries can be solved by using the latest ergonomic solutions for construction tools, work methods, and workplace layouts. Until the construction industry recognizes the real damage being done to worker health by the very jobs the workers perform every day, there will continue to be older construction workers in constant pain and on the verge of early retirement.

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