When considering the safety of access solutions you should also consider the long-term occupational health of the tradespeople using them. Over time, repetitive movements with heavy loads in awkward positions can strain the body and cause musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Over two-thirds of tradespeople surveyed reported MSD.
MSD is not the same as falls and accidents but rather are long-term issues resulting from the body working under strain (such as flexion of the trunk in bricklayers as they stoop, or raising of the arms as they reach). The long-term results are impairments and disabilities.
One of the reasons that there is less conversation about MSDs is their less obvious nature. They do not get reported the same way falls or accidents do. However, they are debilitating and life-changing. Contractors should consider how they can allow their tradespeople to work in optimal ergonomic positions to provide healthier work environments and protect tradespeople’s well-being and livelihood.
In this article, we will unpack the findings of research conducted on the causes of MSD among tradespeople and what you can do about it. Let’s dig in.
How Common are Musculoskeletal Disorders Amongst Tradespeople?
According to a research paper called “Musculoskeletal disorders among construction workers: a one-year follow-up study”:
- 67% of bricklayers have had one or more long-term musculoskeletal injuries in the previous six months
- 47% of these were ongoing 6 months later
- 28% of respondents had 2 different sources of pain
- 35% had three or more
In fact, “About half of the bricklayers reported that they experience many problems during work … related to complaints of their lower leg/ankle, elbow and back.” [emphasis added]
This is an incredibly high number. Construction has always been acknowledged as a physically demanding job but it should not be accepted that over two-thirds of brick workers will live with pain and injury and that half of the bricklayers would face “many problems” during work.
What Types of Injuries are Most Common?
The body of research for MSD in construction is still developing, but the studies we do have paint a picture that has been obvious, but not quantifiable. We have known that tradespeople perform strenuous labour with a large physical toll, but just how large it is has not been born out by data until fairly recently.
In the study conducted by Boschman, van der Molen, and Sluiter, 81% of bricklayers reported that their injuries were work-related. Of these 81%, elbow, back, neck, and lower arm and wrist issues were the most common complaints reported to be sustained at work.
Here are the most common MSDs that construction workers sustain at work:
Elbow – 100%
Back – 90%
Neck – 89%
Lower arm and wrist – 88%
These injuries are not one-off injuries. They are recurring and sustained. In fact, Boschman, van der Molen, and Sluiter report, “Among the bricklayers with back complaints, 22% (14/64) of the bricklayers reported more problems at the one-year follow-up. Complaints of the upper leg and knee worsened in 50% (4/8) and 26% (11/42) of the bricklayers”
What are the Causes of MSD?
Out of the respondents to Boschman, van der Molen, and Sluiter study, 72% said that their injuries were caused by working with a bent back. 59% blamed working with their arms above shoulder height. And 59% identified kneeling and stooping as the cause of their injuries.
When tradespeople are forced to work in unnatural positions, due to the lack of flexibility of their access solution, musculoskeletal disorders develop. What can be done about this?
Studies show that adjusting the height of materials, and reducing the amount of distance they need to be carried, can improve the rate of MSDs in construction workers. Also, working from a platform that can be adjusted so that tradespeople can work from optimal ergonomic positions, should reduce the risk of MSDs.
Besides working from optimal heights, mast climbing work platforms also eliminate the need to climb ladders and scaffolds, which construction supervisors said “cause and aggravate” their MSDs.
How Mast Climbers Can Help Prevent Musculoskeletal Disorders
Scaffolding is a simple solution: erect a platform. Work from a fixed height. The problems that arise from this are obvious but overlooked. Tradespeople end up stooping or lifting their arms, awkwardly trying to navigate around the scaffolding structure which is often blocking the work surface.
On the other hand, mast climbers can be adjusted. A few centimetres up, a few centimetres down. Whatever is right for the tradespeople. And they don’t block access to the work surface. It would seem that this motorised access solution would be more popular because of the benefits it provides tradespeople, but the traditionalism of the construction industry prevents this.
It’s time to put aside convention, and evaluate solutions on merit, for the benefit and health of the tradespeople using them.
Access solutions that only consider safety in the short term are not doing their job properly. While it is critical to avoid falls and accidents, contractors should also think about the long-term effects of the work environment on tradespeople's health. MSDs are too common among construction workers because of the strain placed on their bodies over time. These disorders can be debilitating and life-changing, yet they often go unreported due to their less obvious nature. When considering how to provide a healthier work environment for employees, contractors should take into account both short-term and long-term safety concerns. For more information on mast climbers, check out our recent publication: The Ultimate Guide to Mast Climbers.
Boschman, J.S., van der Molen, H.F., Sluiter, J.K. et al. Musculoskeletal disorders among construction workers: a one-year follow-up study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 13, 196 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-13-196
Henk F Vander Molen, Robin Grouwstra, P Paul FM Kuijer, Judith K Sluiter & Monique HW Frings-Dresen (2004) Efficacy of adjusting the working height and mechanizing of transport on physical work demands and local discomfort in construction work, Ergonomics, 47:7, 772-783, DOI: 10.1080/0014013042000193309