The construction industry has a back problem. Active workers face a staggering incidence of back pain and injury. In America as a whole more than 50 million adults suffer chronic back pain. Each year 264 million days of work are lost to back pain totalling $100 billion in loses to American companies each year.
Not surprisingly back pain among those in the construction industry is higher than for Americans as a whole, in fact about 20% higher. That figure holds the same across different age groups, so youth is not necessarily as much an advantage as we might think.1
Back pain is a symptom. The problem is the nature of the work, and it’s not just heavy lifting. Twisting, flexing, bending and reaching all play a roll, as well as constant repetitive motion. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR):
…many construction occupations require bending or twisting of the body and repetitive motions in work performance. Brickmasons are more likely to use bending, twisting, and repetitive motions during most of their work than other occupations, followed closely by painters and drywall installers. Many construction jobs also involve kneeling, crouching, stooping, and crawling, which increase the risk of WMSDs as well. Concrete workers, heating and air conditioning mechanics, roofers, and painters have to work in such postures for at least 60% of their working time. Overall, about three-quarters (75%) of workers in construction production occupations need to kneel, crouch, stoop, or crawl for at least half of their work time. 2
Typically relief from back pain takes the form of addressing symptoms through anti-inflammatory medicine, opioids, physical therapy, and surgery. Safer practices like warming up before activity, proper form when lifting or bending help, but ultimately fail because of the unpredictable nature of the work.
Robotics have just started to be used more often in construction. They are increasingly more helpful at placing materials where needed and saving the workers twisting and bending so much when working with something like cinder blocks. Innovation in this field has been accelerated because of Covid. Keeping safe work distances and working with fewer crew members have made robotics a good way to assist contractors in keeping workers safe while staying efficient.
An emerging field of technology to help avoid injury is the exosuit. Unlike simple braces or wraps to support a worker’s joints exosuits can be effective in fighting fatigue and back injury. Exosuits have become relatively inexpensive, practical and much more comfortable in recent years. They don’t have to be heavy or restrictive and can provide support for repetitive movements assisting in lifting and bending over through the course of the workday.
Valuable information can be found on the latest in exoskeleton technology around the web including Sites like ExoskeletonReport.com
Back pain and injury are clearly a big problem in the construction industry leading to downtime for workers and sometimes chronic injury. For contractors this not only leads to a less productive and cost-effective work force, but may open the door for law suits or medical expenses that hopefully can be avoided. Embracing newer options like robotics and exosuits might seem a bit too sci-fi until you see how effective these modern solutions can be for this long persistent problem.