Retirement, that point in life most of us have been working toward for several decades. Think about it. Your last day on the job site, the wheelbarrow full of money the company gives you as a reward for jobs well done, and days of doing whatever you please stretching into the future.
Will you feel well enough to push that wheelbarrow? Insurance actuary tables say that the average construction carpenter or laborer will have only 18 months after he retires when he feels physically well enough to enjoy his new time off. After that, the effects of years of micro-traumas begin to make to tough and probably painful.
The average daily safety talk is usually about making sure you are wearing fall protection gear, or how to make sure you are safe while trenching, or lock out- tag out procedures. Those talks are fine and help prevent you keep from injuring yourself by outside circumstances. Keep doing them.
But the more insidious injuries to your body during your construction career are the simple repetitive things you do that over time will rob you of years of enjoyment in Life-After-Work.
Robert Alaimo is an industrial injury prevention specialist at Morris Hospital in Grundy County, Illinois who takes the long view of everyday safety and health prevention. Alaimo was a union carpenter for 25 years before he became a professional construction health and safety advocate, experience that gives him significant street cred. Alaimo teaches workers how to improve their own body safety procedures.
“We spend more time maintaining our cars than we do maintaining our body,” Alaimo says. “Injury prevention means choosing to work your body safely.”
It is the cumulative, repetitive movements, called micro-traumas, which add up over the years and make later life painful. Such as:
- Lifting and twisting equipment or material into place
- Climbing in and out of the equipment cab
- Repetitive twisting operating equipment which requires 360 degrees of vision
- Jumping from equipment or ladders or scaffolding
- Carrying weight
- Pushing of pulling resistance tasks
Alaimo says that as early as your 30’s the daily weights and resistance you experience on the job start to catch up with you, and by the time you hit 40 or 50, you’ll have some kind of chronic pain. Often an early injury that didn’t bother you much that occurred early in your career is aggravated by work done later. For example, in the U.S. the average back injury happens to a man at age 37, but the injury often does not create significant discomfort or disability until years later.
In his job site visits, Alaimo says he often sees certain companies who have repeated injuries - many times the same injuries - and it becomes what he terms ‘frighteningly predictive’. Workers have had safety training to operate equipment but have had no training how to safely operate the mechanics of their bodies.
The problem of cumulative micro-trauma injuries becomes clear as construction workers age. Older workers are less likely to suffer non-fatal injuries than younger workers but they spend more days away from work after an injury. Bodies wear out at the joints and connective tissues, so an injury to an older worker who has not worked his body safely over the years has less physical foundation with which to heal. The economic impact to the injured worker in lost wages and high healthcare costs is also significant.
The study of biomechanics and longevity is leading to technological advances for construction workers, such as full body exoskeleton suits made by Ekso Bionics which align the body correctly and take some of the weight and resistance off of the worker. But exoskeletons aren’t practical for many construction tasks.
“We all work hard,” Alaimo says. “Eighty percent of the time, injuries on labor related jobs - those types of careers where you are abusing your body for money - are due to how the worker is using his body to do the job.”
He says construction workers are ‘industrial athletes’ and should approach their jobs with that mindset. Alaimo gives these tips on how you can work safely:
Mom was right. Stand up straight. Don’t sacrifice your body to poor posture. When you stand up, visualize a plumbline starting at the middle of your ear, through the center of your shoulders, to your hips, to your ankles. Shoulders should be down and wide. Head should be level with the horizon. Thumbs should be facing forward.
Be the car. The stress of repetitive resistance causes injury by forcing your bones and connective tissue to work against your body’s biomechanical design. Think of a NASCAR vehicle. The tires on those cars wear out fast because they are exposed to repetitive stresses such as heat, friction, and pace in the same configuration over and over. The cars that have an ergonomically designed frame and aware driver have better component longevity.
Stop leaning. We carry up to 75 percent of our body weight above the belt. It takes only 3 to 12 percent of a leaning tilt to your upper body to put all of that weight on your lower back. Now, add outside weight and some repetitive twists as you work machine controls or place materials and you have a recipe for a back injury.
Adjust your weights and resistance. Alaimo’s presentations show that working your body’s mechanics takes no more time than doing a task sloppily.
Adjust your pace. How fast you work increases the amount of resistance you endure. How long you perform a repetitive task breaks down soft tissue.
Bring a towel. Sitting and twisting is worse for your back than standing. Proper equipment operator position is sitting fully back on the seat pad so that your back touches the vertical cushion. The back of your knees should not touch the front of the seat pad. If they do, use a towel or ergonomic pillow behind your back to take the pressure off your lower legs and back. Keep hips at between 90-110 degree inflection, with your knees lower than your hips. Feet should be flat. Adjust the seat so that your reach to the equipment controls is no more than 15 inches. More than 15 inches causes you to curve your spine and become an extended-reach which will wear out your shoulders.
Your head is like a bowling ball. Human heads weight around 15 pounds and are supported by a network of muscles that affect your spine, the soft pads between your spine’s segments, your lower back and hips. Adjust your seat so your head is level with the horizon and you can see the machine control monitor without constantly bending your neck. Bouncing that 15 pound bowling ball around on your shoulders will cause back pain and radiant headaches.
Ignore the armrests. When you get into a truck cab, don’t use the armrest to lift yourself up. Face the truck, step up with your dominant leg, hold the handbar and the steering wheel if there is no left hand bar to balance and complete your lift. Get as much lift as possible with your legs. When you get out of the cab, face into the cab and make sure both hands are available to help you exit. Leave items in the cab until after you are solidly on the ground before you grab them.
Alaimo says how your work your body mechanics is a choice that will help keep you safer at work in the short term, and keep you healthy in the long term. You want to make sure you have enough oomph to push that wheelbarrow of cash, don’t you?