Research

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Participatory Ergonomics (Completed 2009-2014)

Assessing construction hazards is difficult because workers perform many tasks over time within a single job, and each task has different physical hazards.

Laura Welch, MD
CPWR 
Ph: 301-578-8500 ext.8505
Email: lwelch@cpwr.com

Research Team and Partners: Washington University in St. Louis; University of Massachusetts Lowell; Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis; Carpenters’ Health and Welfare Trust Fund of St. Louis; Floor Layers Local 1310; Sheet Metal Local 36; Sheet Metal Local 36 Benefit Fund

Catastrophic accidents, like collapsing trenches and falls from high steel, often earn newspaper headlines, but few occupational hazards touch more construction workers than musculoskeletal disorders. Sprains, strains, repetitive motion injuries, and all manner of soft tissue damage steal quality of life from tens of thousands of construction workers. Poor ergonomic practices on the job cause chronic pain and cut short the careers of too many men and women of the trades.

Identifying the characteristic tasks of each trade that are most punishing for the human body, and proposing alternatives, can’t be done in the lab alone. It’s best achieved through participatory methods, where the insights of workers and contractors in the field can identify problems and seek practical solutions. Dr. Welch’s team engaged in extensive investigations of work processes in the sheet metal and drywall sectors to do just that.

Workers identified solutions that could ease work strain but the study showed mixed results of the efficacy of delivering a participatory intervention; workers showed improvements in some short-term impacts and described and reported implementing solutions for many problematic tasks. However the time expectations of the program were challenging in this fast-paced and unpredictable environment with ever-changing work crews and project schedules. Even though work groups work autonomously they are often not empowered to control their work tasks and environment to make the necessary changes to reduce the work risks.

Participatory ergonomics has been effective in solving task-specific problems in construction groups but it does not appear that providing general ergonomics training to work groups, a bottom up approach, can be effective without additional support from outside of the work group. In fact, several of the challenges encountered in implementing solutions were outside of the contractor’s control. Given the dependency on worker participation in using the tools and work practices, a top-down approach with solutions imposed by contractors may not be suitable either. The best solution may be to incorporate ergonomics into the system so all levels of the project are functioning with the same goal in mind – incorporate ergonomics into the safety program so reduction of physical risk in work tasks is considered from the design stage to the building stage of a project.

Results

  • Eight local, national, and international presentations were given.
  • Papers were published in the journals Applied Ergonomics, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
  • A demonstration was held at the National Wood Floor Associations Wood Flooring Expo, “The Ergonomics of Hardwood Flooring Installation,” sponsored by ProInstaller, Harris/QEP, and Valinge Innovation, and jointly presented by instructors from the Floor Layers Joint Apprenticeship Program from the Carpenters’ District Council and Ann Marie Dale from the Washington University research team on April 30, 2015, in St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Return on investment (ROI) metrics for ergonomic tools were generated, including a ride-on scraper for flooring removal and a power crimper for prepping metal duct materials.