Construction has never moved at the same technological pace as other industries. The nature of the business is that conditions change from job to job, and even construction of “cookie-cutter” restaurants and hotels present different geographic, regulatory and labor challenges. Therefore, it’s no surprise that when a tool or system works—outdated though it may be—there's hesitation when it comes to changing it on the mere promise of a better deal. As the old saying goes, if it's not broken, why fix
However, the old way of doing things is broken. Workers are using outdated tools, both powered and hand-operated, and companies are losing millions of dollars in productivity and shelling out big bucks in recordkeeping, claims processing and workers' compensation premiums. Using some of the most common types of construction tools can result in painful and potentially debilitating injuries referred to as work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs).
As far back as 1999, OSHA made the connection
between regular construction work and WMSDs. They tied repetitive movements of the wrists and other joints to tendonitis, tight grips on tools and materials to carpal tunnel syndrome, vibratory tools to Raynaud's Syndrome, and the prolonged carrying of (and working with) materials overhead, as well as hoisting heavy items with both arms straight down at one's side, to thoracic outlet syndrome. Construction workers’ hips, hands, wrists, neck, back, feet, ankles and shoulders are regularly under assault from day-to-day activities.
Add this to the fact that the construction industry now operates with a workforce older than that of other U.S. industries
, and that people generally have fallen into more sedentary lifestyles than previous generations. Both of these factors put employees at an increased risk of WMSDs.
In fact, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report
issued late last year found that the private construction industry had almost 80,000 days-away-from-work, nonfatal injury cases in 2015, with workers spending a median of 13 days at home. Nearly 35 construction workers out of every 10,000 experienced a WMSD incident, such as overexertion while lifting or lowering, or injury from repetitive motions.
While time away from work costs employees in the sense that workers' compensation benefits are typically only a percentage of wages, employers bear the biggest financial burden. Companies that are self-insured for workers' compensation must pay hefty medical costs, and firms that maintain traditional policies often see their premiums skyrocket after a compensable claim, sometimes even exceeding the cost of the accident or injury itself depending on the severity and frequency of claims.
However, the indirect costs are the real budget killers: overtime pay for workers left to make up the injured employee's responsibilities, training of replacement workers, claims processing and recordkeeping, just to name a few. According to OSHA's Safety Pays calculator
—which aims to provide employers with an estimate of the financial impact of accidents—a company with a 3 percent profit margin would have to increase sales by more than $2 million to make up for a $30,000 carpal
tunnel claim and its indirect costs of $33,000.
With an estimate that at least 25 percent of workers' compensation claims are related to construction-industry WMSD's, it’s worth exploring how to reduce the chance of one occurring. Enter the new generation of tools.
Major tool manufacturers have taken up the banner of productivity and occupational health by revamping their products to make them lighter and easier on the body. For example, Fiskars, famous for its orange-handled scissors, has an ergonomic new take on the hammer, a tool that is probably as low-tech it gets. It also has an entire new line of striking tools. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study
found that the company's shock-absorbing design required less intensity on the part of the user and succeeded in imposing less strain than standard tools.
Other companies, including Milwaukee Tool and Bosch Power Tools, have embarked on a mission to start introducing power tools with better ergonomic design as well, allowing users to ease up on the grip and use the equipment in a way that has the least impact on the body's most vulnerable areas. Milwaukee also has a smartphone-operated system that allows the user to preset tool functions that will maintain a steady intensity with less strain. These tools aren't cheap, but they're only a fraction of the cost of an injury.
Armed with the latest tools, and in conjunction with onsite training of employees on how to lift and move correctly as they do their jobs, there's no reason companies can't look forward to seeing the benefits of modern tool design.
Kim Slowey is a Florida-based freelance writer and a certified general contractor. She covers commercial and residential construction and real estate and writes about construction and tools for Home Depot.