Working in the construction sector is one of the most physically taxing occupations that one can undertake. NKOSINI NGWENYA explores the topic of ergonomics in the construction industry.

The construction industry is among the most hazardous and accident-prone working environments. On construction sites, workers are exposed to dangers on a daily basis that can result in serious injuries or even death.

In the United Kingdom (UK), construction was the leading industry among four industries with higher-than-average rates of musculoskeletal disorders during the 2014 to 2016 period.

There is a high prevalence of work-related upper-limb disorders in the construction sector, at 960 per 100 000 workers, compared to an all-industry average of 550 per 100 000 workers.

The sector also has a high prevalence of back disorders, with about 920 per 100 000 workers reporting back disorders, compared to an all-industry average of 490 per 100 000 workers. It is reported that 15,5 percent of construction workers complained of upper-back pains while 43,7 percent complained of lower-back pains.

Speaking at the recent South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (Saiosh) conference, Professor John Smallwood, head of the Department of Construction Management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, noted that the causes of  these problems include working in the same position for long periods of time; bending or twisting the back; working in awkward/cramped positions; working when injured or hurt; working in hot, cold, wet and humid conditions; exposure to noise; climbing and descending; and handling heavy materials or equipment.

The high worker injury and fatality rates in the construction industry make it an extreme-risk sector when it comes to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) – the most prevalent form of occupational ill health in this sector.

In the United States, for example, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the biggest cause of absence from work in the construction sector. According to the Construction Industry Development Board, approximately 30 percent of construction workers suffer from MSDs globally.

Despite stringent health and safety regulations that seek to reduce the risks associated with working in the construction sector, very little progress has been made in improving health and safety of workers, particularly in developing countries. Accidents and injury rates in many developing countries, such as Nigeria, Thailand, and Tanzania, are considerably higher than in European countries.

Ergonomics – defined by Professor Smallwood as the study of work, or the work system, including the worker, his/her tools and workplace – has become extremely important in the construction industry around the world.

Ergonomic resolutions have contributed immensely to preventing injuries and fatalities, while facilitating safety and health practices for construction workers, but there still remains great potential for more widespread application of ergonomics.

Smallwood pointed out that, when applied in the construction sector, ergonomics enhances productivity, quality, time, profitability and reduces project risks.

He added: “Prevention of injury and illness in the construction sector requires dissemination, adoption and implementation of effective interventions, or research into practice. Regulations may require employers to make changes, but knowledge, attitudes and work practices can evolve significantly even without regulations.”

Smallwood identified a number of interventions that could contribute to an improvement in ergonomics. These include awareness, constructability (general), safe working procedures, mechanisation, reengineering, contractor planning, design of tools, prefabrication, on-site workshops and specification.

Overcoming the barriers to implementing more feasible ergonomic resolutions requires participation and cooperation from all involved in the construction sector.

If the principles of ergonomics are integrated into all phases of construction work – such as bidding, engineering, pre-planning, purchasing, materials handling, job-site management and training of supervisors and workers – the construction industry will ease the burden off workers, mitigate hazards and reduce WMSDs.

Thus, ergonomists have an important role to play in promoting the importance of ergonomics in the construction industry. The need to protect construction workers from health-related risks and fatalities will require architects, builders and safety researchers to consider how to decrease and eliminate work-related injuries such as WMSDs.

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