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Diffusing Ergonomic Innovations in Construction (Completed - 2004-2009)

Marc Weinstein, PhD (concluding researcher)

Research Team: Jennifer Hess, PhD, University of Oregon; Sharon Garber, PhD, Consultant.

Masonry contractors assess the advantages and disadvantages of various ergonomic innovations.

Reducing Injuries Among Masonry Workers

A masonry worker handling an average of 200 concrete masonry unit (CMU) blocks per day, weighing 38 pounds each, lifts the weight of more than five Ford F-350 pick-up trucks each week, or two and one-half fully loaded Boeing 747-100s each year. So it’s not really surprising that masonry workers have the highest rate of back injuries causing days away from work among all the construction trades. However, research by Drs.
Dan Anton, Jennifer Hess and colleagues identified a variety of innovations being used around the country that show promise in reducing the risk of back injuries and other MSDs among masonry workers.

The innovations fall into three categories: materials, such as H-block, lightweight block, and autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC); work practices, such as working in lift teams; and equipment, such as grout delivery systems and adjustable scaffolding. Alternative materials such as H-block and lightweight block reduce stress to the upper extremities and low back. Adjustable height or mast climbing scaffolds can help prevent awkward back postures when used for placing work materials at optimum heights.

A video of two-person teams to lift heavy concrete masonry units can be seen here.

In a survey of masonry contractors around the country, the researchers found that the main advantage driving use of an innovation was time savings, followed closely by increased productivity. Improving safety was usually the least important “advantage” noted by contractors from among a list provided in the survey. Increasing safety usually ranked third, except for the use of half-weight cement bags and two-person lift teams with 12-inch block, where safety was the most important advantage. Cost was the greatest disadvantage for equipment such as mast climbing scaffolding and mortar silos, while quality concerns were the greatest disadvantage for H-block and AAC. As the charts show, contractors use various innovations despite their disadvantages. The researchers concluded that masonry contractors are beginning to innovate in the use of new equipment, materials, and work practices, a trend that should help reduce injury risks to masons.

Development of a "Wiki" Site for Ergonomics Diffusion

In the course of their masonry ergonomics research, Dr. Weinstein and his team identified dozens of measures that likely reduce musculoskeletal disease (MSD) risk and injuries in construction workers. These include alternative means and methods of production as well as new tools and equipment. Many of these innovations are not broadly known, and though they appear to effectively address MSD risks, most have not yet been scientifically validated. Moreover, given the large number of innovations identified and the cost of validating each one, most will likely never be scientifically validated.

To close this knowledge gap, the researchers developed an interactive Web site based on a “wiki” platform (http://oshwiki.org). Oshwiki.org provides easy access to nearly 100 innovations in construction ergonomics. The wiki platform not only allows researchers and practitioners the opportunity to comment on innovations, but users can also directly edit, amend, and make their own contributions on the wiki. The wiki can also serve as a platform for open-source development tools (applets) that promote innovations in construction ergonomics. One such applet is the masonry calculator, a program developed by the research team. The masonry calculator allows users to determine the cost effectiveness of using open-ended concrete masonry units (CMU), also known as “H-blocks,” as an alternative to the heavier closed-end CMUs, or “box-car” blocks, typically used on worksites. Should Oshwiki.org prove to be an effective means to diffuse new ideas about construction ergonomics, it can easily be extended to other areas in occupational safety and health.

Original Project Abstract:

Ergonomic solutions have been slow to diffuse in the construction industry, even where such solutions have low financial costs and potentially large benefits to workers, contractors, and owners. This proposal seeks to address this paradox by developing and implementing a series of communication and education activities aimed at promoting the use of tools, equipment, materials, and work practices that show promise in reducing ergonomic risk factors within the construction community of the Pacific Northwest . This will be accomplished by applying the insights from successful community health initiatives to develop an empirically grounded methodology to match diffusion efforts to the type of individuals and organizations most likely to adopt specific ergonomic innovations. We have identified two specific validated ergonomic improvements and have roughly assessed the current level of utilization of these innovations. Following confirmation of these assessments, the research team will initiate communication and promotional activities with trade contractors, safety professionals, trade union representatives, journeymen, and apprentices as appropriate. Specific diffusion approaches will be tailored to specific segments of the construction community who are identified as likely next adopters of these ergonomic innovations. Vendors of the chosen ergonomic innovations have been enlisted to collaborate in this project and objects of the communication strategies will be targeted at trade shows, jobsites, apprenticeship training centers, and through existing construction contractors and associations. To assess the impact of the diffusion activities resulting from these efforts, the research team will conduct follow-up surveys and interviews with individual workers and companies that participate in these programs as part of its comprehensive evaluation of the project.