Taking a toll

The physical nature of construction work is having an impact on the industry’s workers, many of whom are in their 40s

  • Research suggests the manual labor of construction workers can exacerbate physical changes that come with age.
  • Experts say changing behavior will require a cultural shift.
  • Older construction workers can serve as mentors for younger workers, teaching them to work safer and smarter.

Twenty years ago, Jeff Schilleman used to see construction workers “thinking they could move the world.” Now Schilleman, corporate safety director at The Boldt Co. in Appleton, WI, said many of the company’s workers have hit their 40s and realized, “I’m not as young as I used to be, and I’m not a power lifter.”

Instead of shouldering the burden alone, workers at Boldt lift in pairs and use power buggies to move loads. One reason why they do this is the company’s safety culture, which encourages working smarter, not harder. Another is personal experience. As Schilleman put it, waking up every morning with achy joints makes you think, “How can I get this job done and not feel like I’m ready to fall over at the end of the day?”

Similar questions are being asked throughout the industry. The average construction worker now is in his or her 40s, and research suggests construction labor takes a toll on the aging musculoskeletal system.

“Many of them we know have to retire early because of the physical nature of the work, and it’s just difficult for them to do it,” said Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health at the Washington-based Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. “The other side of the coin is contractors end up losing some of their most experienced and skilled workers early, which is tragic to the industry as well as for those contractors.”

Health impact

Research from CPWR – the Center for Construction Research and Training in Silver Spring, MD, highlights the impact construction work can have on the body over time.

Baby boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964 – represented 40 percent of the construction workforce in 2005, according to CPWR, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Their share has been decreasing, reflecting the larger trend of baby boomers retiring across all industries. However, CPWR said baby boomers in construction are retiring earlier than those overall, creating vacancies that may be hard to fill.

Work-related injuries appear to be a big factor. A CPWR study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (Vol. 53, No. 6) found that chronic pain, musculoskeletal disorders and poor health pushed many roofers into early retirement.

Compared to white-collar workers, construction workers are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to experience chronic diseases and functional limitations as they age, according to research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (Vol. 53, No. 4). The study, also from CPWR, concluded that working in construction “may exacerbate the usual decline in overall health status and workability and increase the likelihood of functional limitations, the odds of arthritis, back problems, CLD (chronic lung disease), and stroke in later years.”

John Rosecrance, associate professor of ergonomics and human factors at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said lower back injuries are perhaps the most common type of injury among construction workers.

Even when an injury is not career-ending, it likely will sideline an older worker for a longer period of time. “As we age, we’re more susceptible to injuries. It’s harder for the body to repair itself and get over these injuries,” Rosecrance said.

He gave the example of an older and younger worker who fall off the same roof. Generally speaking, the older worker will sustain more extensive and costlier injuries and need more time off to heal.

Natural age-related changes also make the job harder. Rosecrance explained that people lose strength and muscular endurance as they age, which affects their ability to carry heavy loads. Also, older workers may lack flexibility and have more difficulty holding an awkward position, such as during overhead work.

Working through the pain

Changing behavior on construction sites will require a cultural shift, experts say.

Although two workers are better than one for lifting a heavy load, many workers still go it alone. “If they can lift it, they will lift it,” Rosecrance said. “But if there’s a culture that no one lifts anything by themselves if it’s over, let’s say, 50 pounds, then people would tend to ask for more assistance and it would be acceptable and available.”

Mary Jane MacArthur, director of the Health Promotion Division at the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, emphasized a simple fact: If construction workers do not work, they do not get paid.

“They’re really reticent to take time off to go to the doctor. If they are sick, they will come in and work sick,” she said.

Schneider recalled one worker’s hesitation when he suggested the man switch from jackhammering after a couple hours to avoid injury from the repetitive vibration. He said the worker told him, “Well, that’s a good idea but the supervisor said, ‘You’re the best jackhammer man that I have, the most productive, and I want you to do that all day.’”

This anecdote shows that workers need to be empowered to ask for changes in their daily work.

Another part of culture change is education and training, said Laura Boatman, project coordinator for the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, based in Sacramento.

When SBCTC conducted focus groups for a study on ergonomics, workers expressed skepticism that contractors would actually allow changes that might slow down production, such as rest breaks or job rotations. “They would just say, ‘it’s not going to happen,’” Boatman said.

On the other end, some contractors claimed workers – especially older journeymen who were set in their ways – did not want to use new tools.

A significant obstacle is worker acceptance of pain. As Boatman said, “It’s almost like, ‘I’m a construction worker, therefore I will hurt.’” And with everyone in pain, no one wants to be singled out as the one complaining. She added that some workers hesitate to go to the doctor because they do not want their injury to become known and recorded. “I think there is a fear that would stick with you,” Boatman said. “You might be passed over if you’re perceived to have a weakness, so you might not get the kind of work that you want.”

Another challenge is that jobsites vary. Workers may have access to a safer tool on one jobsite but not the next one. Plus, in the face of life-and-death situations such as working at heights, using an ergonomic tool to prevent an injury down the road does not seem as pressing, Boatman said.

Her takeaway was that all sides need to understand that healthy workers make for a healthy business. “We have to make the connection and we have to show how taking some of these steps to prevent these injuries would be a win-win situation for everybody,” she said.

Making adjustments

Wellness in construction
Perhaps just as important as the load that construction workers lift onsite is the load they carry by being overweight.

Simple changes can make a big difference. Many years ago, Schneider was on a jobsite where workers who walked on reinforced steel all day complained of back and knee pain. He suggested an insole to give them more support and cushioning, which turned out to be an effective, low-cost solution.

In his opinion, the biggest thing contractors can do is proper planning to reduce manual material handling. He recommended delivering the load to the spot where it will be used rather than having workers lift and carry it. Rosecrance noted that the typical workstation for a construction worker is on the ground. If feasible, elevate the work to waist or shoulder level so a worker does not have to squat or kneel.

Passing down the message

The safety message is not only for older workers; younger workers need to adjust their behavior to avoid injuries later.

“When they come onto a jobsite and they see there’s work to be done, they’re eager to do this work,” MacArthur said. “But they don’t think ahead 10-20 years about how what they’re doing on the jobsite right now, how they’re lifting … how that is going to affect their body later as they go on throughout their career in construction.”

Boatman believes experienced workers can let younger workers know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. “When it’s one of their peers and someone they look up to and that person is telling them a personal story, that is more powerful than just about anything I can give them,” she said.

That is the type of culture encouraged at Boldt, where journeymen are paired with new workers. One popular mentor is a carpenter superintendent who started out 20 years ago taking risks to try and become the top worker in his crew. “He was lucky and never got injured, but as he got older he could see the fact that he was doing it wrong and saw the light finally,” Schilleman said. The mentor now shares how he came up through the ranks, cautioning others to work safely.

In that way, older workers offer multiple benefits – from guiding others to using their experience to anticipate problems. “These workers who are older are really valuable employees,” Schneider said, “and it’s incumbent upon us and our employers to figure out ways to keep them on the job.”

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