From using a wheelbarrow and shovel to lifting and carrying heavy objects to extensive use of tools, few workplaces test out your body like building sites.

Yet asking too much of our bodies can lead to injury.

Indeed, ‘body stressing’ is the most common form of serious injury which builders and tradespeople can suffer. Over the five years to 2012/13, data from Safe Work Australia suggests that body stressing accounted for 23,340 injuries for which serious claims were lodged in relation to construction workplaces. This accounts for 37 per cent of all serious claim industries across the sector during that time.

Of the body stressing injuries which did occur, 10,950 (47 per cent of the total) were caused by muscular stress which occurred whilst lifting carrying or putting down objects. A further 8,475 (36 per cent) were caused by muscular stress which occurred whilst handling objects other than picking than lifting, carrying or putting them down.

That raises questions about how body stressing and musculoskeletal injuries occur and what can be done to prevent these. To explore these issues, Sourceable corresponded with a spokesperson from Safe Work NSW as well as Lizzy Smith, a certified professional ergonomist at WorkSmith.

Body stressing occurs where muscles, tendons, ligaments or bones are placed under stress. Typical factors which lead to this include repetitive or sustained force, high or sudden force, repetitive movement, sustained and/or awkward posture and exposure to vibration.

Whilst body stressing can arise from a singular traumatic event, it can also be an outcome of multiple events over time. One possible cause can involve lifting, carrying and putting down objects. Other causes can include slips, trips and falls and exposure to repetitive movement.

According to Smith, an additional risk factor includes poor habits in personal health. Our bodies, she says, consist of many moving parks and rely on the integrity of its joints, activity of the musculature around them to move and the nervous system to coordinate everything.

At most times, she said, workers are competent at their tasks and this works well. Nevertheless, problems occur when we move awkwardly as a result of our body becoming tired, us not having taken adequate breaks or us becoming rushed or distracted. Those new to tasks or returning from holiday may need to concentrate further so as to adjust to the movements required or to build up strength on the job.

Lack of adequate sleep or poor eating habits (along with age) can also lead to bodies recovering more slowly from minor strains on muscles and ligaments, Smith said.

As well, being in the same posture for long periods, handling heavy loads without mechanical supports or moving in the same patterns can lead to wear and tear on joint lining, ligaments and imbalances in posture and can lead to chronic injuries.

On construction sites, Smith says several factors can contribute to body stress. These include the site itself (rough ground, working near edges and at heights or near heavy machinery like cranes or trucks), the high-risk nature of the work (such as welding or scaffold work) and pressures associated with working in teams, on tight schedules and work being coordinated across different trades and shifts.

As noted above, physical labour including performing hazardous manual tasks is likely to stress the body. As well, hand and finger injuries can result from use of tools, cuts, pinching between materials and overuse strain.

Adequate levels of hydration, sleep, movement variety, recreational activity and stretching can help, she said.

In terms of what should be done, the Safe Work spokesperson points to several areas where mistakes can be made.

First, there is an overreliance on training in respect to lifting technique and procedures as a primary means of controlling dangers associated with manual tasks. Notwithstanding the importance of correct lifting procedures, the spokesperson says evidence has demonstrated that reliance on this as a primary source of risk mitigation is of limited effectiveness. Even if workers observe safe lifting strategies, the spokesperson says they may still be exposed to substantial levels of risk.

Next, there is a lack of planning/scheduling for the movement of materials and people on site. During a project conducted in 2014, Safe Work found that many organisations did not adequately plan activities such as moving heavy and/or awkward materials such as plasterboards, frames and trusses. Poor housekeeping was also common.

Finally, other mistakes revolve around broader issues such as poor workplace culture, inadequate site planning and scheduling to minimise manual handling tasks, a lack of information and instruction given to workers and excessive reliance on manual lifting as opposed to use of lifting aids.

On the second point, the spokesperson says it is imperative to have a robust site management plan for work, health and safety. This would consider:

  • Site characteristics – e.g. access, size, overhead power lines
  • Designed drop off points and material storage areas
  • Use of fit-for-purpose mechanical lifting aids
  • Housekeeping to ensure clear access and egress; and
  • Time and resource allocation.

Smith, meanwhile, says there are several steps workers can take. Maintaining good health, including regular exercise and adequate sleep, is crucial. Workers should be certain how to handle tools and materials. Lifting should be coordinated with helpers and/or mechanical aids. When lifting, workers should use the larger leg muscles and bracing muscles around the trunk. They naturally contract when you bend, reach or go to lift objects. Where possible, lifting aids (such as cranes, material hoists, forklifts and hand trucks) should be used. Having material delivered in smaller packaging sizes can mean smaller load handling.

Suitable personal protective equipment (for instance, puncture/impact resistant gloves, knee pads if kneeling a lot, and well-fitted hard hats) should be worn according to the nature of the task. Balancing and reaching safely, for instance for work on ladders or narrow walkways, can also be a safety issue when you are dehydrated or tired, or your muscles are fatigued from heavy work.

Work spaces should be organised and kept free from unwanted material and waste. Tripping over rubbish, tools or power cords can lead to injury from falls, back or groin strain.

When returning from holidays or illness, workers should pace themselves and rebuild mentally and physically. Distractions must be avoided. When fatigued, breaks should be taken as tiredness can lead to mistakes.

Finally, Smith said it is important to design out injury where possible.

“Think safety by design!” she said.

“Plan your work to avoid or reduce the need to lift, be in awkward postures for any length of time. Reduce repetitive movements and vibration by thinking about the order of work tasks and have the best tools for the job kept in good condition. If you have the chance, schedule your heavy work for the period of day that you are less tired and have more helpers on site. Construct or assemble components on the ground or at level if you can and mechanically lift them into place.

“When you have to be in awkward or bending postures for a time, limber up by stretching, break up the work tasks as much as you can and take a short break afterwards to take a walk or stretch.

“Even two minutes’ break will help your neck and back feel better. You will probably find that you will finish the job better and have more energy at the end of the day too.”

Body stressing is Australia’s most common construction injury.

By observing simple steps, workers and employers can minimise the risk of these injuries occuring.