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Aging workforce, new tech create need for construction ergonomics


LAS VEGAS — Ergonomics in construction injury prevention hasn’t gotten the attention it needed in the past because the industry faces some of the most deadly incidents, however an aging workforce coupled with new technologies that simplify solutions for better movement are making it easier for employers institute change.

That’s according to presenters at the 42nd International Risk Management Institute Inc. Construction Risk Conference in Las Vegas on Monday, who said the rising costs of musculoskeletal and soft-tissue injuries, particularly in fields such as construction where the materials are heavy and the work can be repetitive, are helping make the case for improving ergonomics. Even as the industry tends to focus on safety when it comes to more catastrophic incidents, said Allison Seijo, senior risk control consultant with Travelers Cos. Inc.’s construction practice.

“Falls lead to fatalities,” Ms. Seijo said. “And soft tissue injuries are complicated. 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. So I think that complicated sense of ergonomic risk, you know, people it’s a tough decision to kind of go into ergonomics and say, Okay, what’s my problem here and how am I going to fix it?”

Ms. Seijo cited National Council on Compensation Insurance data that found in 2018 and 2019 that the average cost for a muscle strain or sprain is $34,000, equally split between indemnity and medical costs. Travelers released its own data, finding that injuries caused by exertion represent 25% of comp claims.

“Financial impacts are significant; 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, according to Ms. Seijo.

“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 heavy piece of machinery, or even the masons outside brushing concrete,” she said, showing photos of construction workers performing duties at a site.

“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 posture, frequency, force, which refers to lifting, pushing or pulling, or pinch-gripping, and duration of work. “We have demands that outweigh capabilities,” he said.

New technologies, offered by a number of companies and affiliated with comp insurers, are helping employers zero in on issues with movement and how to correct, he said. One technology allows for 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. Then it’s up to the company 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 to the floor, according to Ms. Seijo, who provided numerous photographs that illustrated small changes that mean less risk for injuries. Using a platform instead of a ladder, which showed a worker overextending to work on a ceiling, was another example.

Getting employers and employees to buy into changes involved employee weighing in and being involved in the process, Mr. Gonzales said. Another selling point is return on investment, which happens over time but can be monitored — changes will eventually lead to 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 physical labor intensive.”