To power the world, electricians turn, twist, bend, and lift hundreds of times each day. While these repetitive motions may not lead to an immediate injury, they can often lead to overuse of joints and overexertion — and eventually work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) and lost time from work. The challenge, however, is that these injuries are often hard to quantify, and, as such, electrical contractors may not list them as a recordable injury.
“We all have aches and pains, but with a soft tissue injury, it’s hard to pin down the date of injury on an OSHA claim form,” says Merl Miller, director of ergonomics at Performance Ergonomics. “For electricians, shoulders are the most concerning due to their great mobility, lack of inherent stability, and need for them to do overhead work.”
Yet, up to this point in time, ergonomics still has not risen to the forefront of the construction world, Miller says.
“Construction is one of those fields where it has been tough to adopt a good mind-set around ergonomics,” Miller says. “There is a top tier of high-performing companies who do a great job with safety, but it has taken awhile for safety to get integrated into the culture. Musculoskeletal injuries are still leading the charts when it comes to dollar costs for lost-time injuries.”
Case in point: OSHA reported that more than 30% of the employee compensation claims for Independent Electrical Contractor (IEC) members over a four-year span were related to ergonomics, totaling $10 million. To improve the safety of their workers, IEC partnered with OSHA in 2002 to develop the Ergonomics E-Tool, promote a culture of safety, reduce workplace incidents, and prevent workers’ exposure to hazards.
Over time, Miller says ergonomics is starting to gain some traction, but there is still a long way to go.
“The real challenges are the fatalities. Overuse and musculoskeletal disorders/soft tissue injuries don’t make the headlines,” Miller says. “This is especially true in a world where everyone has aches and pains.”
In construction, however, electrical contractors have many issues to contend with — from falls to crane safety to shock hazards.
“When you walk a job site, you often see how many OSHA-targeted violations you must contend with,” he says. “Musculoskeletal injuries seem to drop off the map because there are so many other competing priorities. Ergonomics is harder to define, and most people don’t know where to start.”
In construction, the most common injuries stem from the result of job demands that push the human body beyond its natural limits, says Brian Lowe, Ph.D., industrial engineer in NIOSH’s Division of Applied Research and Technology.
“Workers who must often lift, stoop, kneel, twist, grip, stretch, reach overhead, or work in other awkward positions to do a job are at risk of developing a work-related musculoskeletal disorder,” Lowe says. “These can include back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff tears, sprains, and strains.”
Electrical contractors can improve the safety of their field workforce by identifying work tasks with exertion of high force, non-neutral postures that place strain on the musculoskeletal system, and highly repetitive motions, Lowe says. Next, contractors can invite employees to voice concerns and report job hazards. For example, Rosendin Electric listens to employees, both in the office and in the field, to make their jobs less stressful on their bodies, says Nick Zygaczenko, regional safety director of the San Jose, Calif.-based firm.
Case in point: deck penetrations were formerly on hands and knees. Today, electricians use a new extended pole attachment, which was created in partnership with the University of California-Berkeley. In addition, electricians wear knee pads and stress resistance gloves to provide an additional layer of protection.
Since electricians perform both repetitive overhead work and low work requiring kneeling, bending, and lifting, Rosendin trains its employees on safe lifting techniques during new employee orientations and safety meetings. Employees are encouraged to request assistance for bulky or heavy loads, use safe lifting practices and mechanical means (when possible), such as fork and scissor lifts, to lift heavy objects and access overhead work.
In addition, Dynalectric-San Diego has shifted from working on ladders to using scissor lifts and elevated work platforms. If its workers need to lift heavy equipment or materials, they have three options — use flat carts, pallet jacks, or two employees.
“We can be Albert Einstein smart versus King Kong strong,” says PJ Panebianco, general foreman at Dynalectric-San Diego. “The mind-set of working with brute force and ignorance isn’t a way of the future. We teach the ‘work smarter, not harder’ mind-set.”
One way electrical contractors can reduce ergonomic hazards on job sites is by investing in cable pulling systems, Lowe says. For example, the contractors who earned the Safety Intervention Grant awards from the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation had positive experiences after purchasing electrical cable pulling systems with up to 10,000 pounds peak pulling force capability.
“Engineering controls, like the use of improved equipment and tools, are superior to other approaches for reducing the burden of workplace injuries,” Lowe says.
Another important component of an ergonomics program is reminding electricians to rotate tasks to prevent overuse injuries. To put this plan into action, each crew for Rosendin creates daily pre-task plans in which they must address ergonomics before starting work for the day. In addition, Rosendin implemented the Craft Safety Empowerment Program to involve its craft employees at every level in its safety program and keep management informed of potential issues in the field, says Rick Brown, regional safety director, Tempe, Ariz. Finally, to reduce soft tissue injuries and strains, Rosendin implemented a Stretch and Flex program in 2006 (Photo 1).
“Our Stretch and Flex program is a daily reminder of the potential for injuries that can result from ergonomic issues,” Brown says. “Every project site starts the day with Stretch and Flex. While stretching, we also remind the teams of safe lifting practices and techniques to reduce repetitive motion and strains.”
Tapping into Tools and Technology
Beyond stretching sessions, electrical contractors are investing in tools and technology that help to not only improve productivity, but also safety.
Power UP Electrical Contractors, a St. Louis-based contractor, recently won the Zero Lost Workdays in 2018 safety award from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). Within its ergonomics program, the company focuses on proper tool selection, which includes fitting the tool to the prospective user based on size, capacity, and maneuverability.
“The most obvious reason to focus on ergonomics is to reduce the risk of repetitive stress and cumulative trauma from using tools that may not be the most ergonomically functional tools for the user,” says Steve Richardson, UPCO safety director.
At Rosendin Electric, the company has invested in stress mats and extended attachments on tools and assisted with other innovations.
“Rosendin has worked with tool manufacturers and our prefabrication shops to create tools that are safer,” Brown says. “Most recently, the idea of a two-handed band saw was passed on to a tool manufacturer, which resulted in them creating a safer tool for the industry.”
In the electrical industry, tool design and selection can become an essential aspect of an ergonomics program, Miller says.
“Anytime you talk about the construction field and the use of hand tools and awkward positions, there is a whole sequence of risk factors that they take on,” Miller says. “Some of it is common to construction, and others are specific to the trades due to certain tasks.”
For example, electricians can be susceptible to soft tissue injuries like sore hands, arms, shoulders, and backs while performing overhead drilling, per CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training. Oftentimes, electricians hold a 6- to 12-pound rotary hammer overhead to bore holes in ceilings, spending up to two minutes to create each hole.
“Drilling overhead into concrete is like holding a noisy, vibrating 50-pound box above your shoulders while dust drops into your face and eyes — while you’re standing on a ladder,” says Dr. David Rempel of the Ergonomics Program at the University of California-San Francisco and the University of California-Berkeley, in a CPWR case study.
After listening to concerns voiced at a safety conference, Dr. Rempel and his team took action by forging a partnership with 20 contractors and labor unions. Together, they researched ways to keep workers off ladders when drilling overhead.
By engaging more than 100 workers in California, Oregon, and Washington in field testing, the team developed four generations of support devices for overhead drilling. These devices allow electricians to work with less fatigue in the neck, shoulders, hands, arms, lower back, and legs without reducing productivity, per CPWR.
Based on their research, two manufacturers developed jigs for supporting rotary hammers during concrete drilling. An inverted drill press, designed for drilling into concrete ceilings, allows electricians to perform work from the ground level by raising a drill up to 15 feet. Electricians can also use a heavy drill support system, which is designed for drilling overhead and at other angles, for installing large conduit overhead and inserting anchors for other tasks (Photo 2). By minimizing fatigue, an electrician can take fewer breaks and have more control, depth and precision on the job, Miller says.
“Less man-hours and labor costs and higher quality results in less re-work or problems with excellence or craftsmanship,” Miller says. “It is time to look at the other benefits of ergonomics in addition to health and safety.”
Panebianco says an ergonomics program comes down to “dollars and sense.” About three years ago, a third-party company evaluated the ergonomics program at Dynalectric-San Diego. Over time, the contractor has also made natural updates to its tools to include battery-powered tools and hydraulic benders.
“We want to put our guys in the best situation to be successful,” he says. “There are easier ways to do things that are more efficient. If we need to get a piece of equipment that is going to make the job easier, we will.”
Dynalectric-San Diego has invested in cordless tools, which are more ergonomic, offer more power in a smaller and lighter package, and do not have a cord (Photo 3).
“The progression of cordless tools not only means you’re getting more power, but you’re also not tied to a cord anymore,” Panebianco says. “This eliminates the risk of a fall when climbing up a ladder with a tool that has a long cord hanging off it.”
Focusing on Prevention
Another way electrical contractors are putting a stop to WMSDs is by preventing rather than reacting to injuries. For example, companies can address the exposures prior to work and then find ways to avoid them, Zygaczenko says.
It’s always better to reduce the potential of injury to avoid having to deal with actual injuries, Brown added.
“Poor ergonomic practices can lead to soft tissue injuries that are difficult to identify and can come on over a period of time, so it is extremely important that we concentrate on being prepared and minimizing the risk,” Brown says.
To reduce the amount of injury in the field, contractors can focus on training their up-and-coming apprentices with the mantra, “if it doesn’t hurt now, it may hurt later,” Zygaczenko says.
For example, Miller found this to be true in the health care sector, where he spent eight years in hospital settings. While working with a multi-state hospital group, he learned that he had to start with the new graduates who were just getting started in the industry and investing in their careers.
“Almost every nurse in health care has a bad back, and it is an accepted part of the job,” he says.
Instead of focusing on changing the mind-set in the health care system, he started working with the nursing schools. He trained the nursing students on how to find an employer that cares for them and has an investment in their future.
“It’s starting to change, but it takes a lot of effort and pressure from outside agencies,” he says. “It’s not an easy transition, but it’s starting to make some progress over the last 10 to 15 years.”
In construction, he is noticing the same trend. When it comes to ergonomics, companies often don’t see soft tissue injuries as part of their bottom line.
“It is lurking below the surface,” Miller says. “It’s presenteeism — the workers may be there, but they are not able to give their full effort. When a certain task hurts them to perform, they may find a shortcut, and they won’t do it in a safe way. They will find a way to work around challenges.”
This is especially true at the end of a worker’s career. Experienced electricians may not think about how they organize and execute their work, which can eventually lead to soft tissue injuries. More often than not, Miller says, he is not brought in to help until after a worker has already been injured, he says.
“The senior workers have all these years of wear and tear,” Miller says. “When you add up the number of times that they do certain tasks over a day, week or year, no wonder they eventually have rotator cuff fraying and impingement or bad backs.”
Miller says too often, he doesn’t get the opportunity to get involved with an ergonomics program until after a worker has been injured. While his or her coworkers will be able to benefit from the new tools or work methods, the injured worker may be moved from the field into a “light-duty” type of job.
“While they are still recovering, they may work within their restrictions and use some tools to lighten the load,” Miller says. “It may not be satisfying to the worker, however, because they may not feel like they are adding value to their company. If you can get them accommodations so they are as close as possible to their original job, then that is a real win.”
Some companies are being more proactive by preventing, rather than reacting to, soft tissue injuries. Researchers are also digging below the surface to identify the presence of occupational illnesses and injuries. CPWR has established an Ergonomics Community of Practice to understand why there isn’t a greater use of interventions like tools and work practices that could prevent MSDs, says Eileen Betit, director of Research to Practice for CPWR.
As part of its Research to Practice program, CPWR decided to start with strain and sprain injuries associated with manual lifting and moving heavy construction materials. Through surveys of contractors and discussions with others in the industry, CPWR identified barriers to engaging in safer practices.
In turn, they developed the Best Built Plans program and resources to overcome the barriers.
Currently, CPWR is piloting the program with a small group of contractors to gain direct feedback on what works, what’s missing, and what needs to be changed, Betit says. In the future, as more electrical contractors focus on ergonomic programs and practices, the nation could see a reduction in reported and unreported loss time injuries.
“A goal is to provide the industry — employers and workers — with the information and resources to work safely to prevent injuries and avoid having workers working in pain or managing the pain with medications,” Betit says.
When it comes to ergonomics, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Panebianco says.
“Keeping people healthy, happy, and working is cheaper than having them hurt,” he says. “If people have healthy work lives, there is a chance that they will also be healthy at home, which leads to more productive employees.”