The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 08, 2001

'Protection of the construction worker is clearly a matter of politics'

By The Building Tradesman

The construction industry was exempt from the recent and short-lived OSHA ergonomic standard.

Why? Is it the work environment at a construction site already in better ergonomic order than general industry? If this were the case, we would expect to see construction workers healthier than the general working population.

The opposite is true. By our best accounts, the population of construction workers has the highest rates of people suffering musculoskeletal injuries. What would motivate OSHA to exempt the industry from a standard which would address a clearly demonstrated need?

OSHA's standard, based closely on recommendations from NIOSH, are built on an understanding of the kind of risk a worker is exposed to, and a reasonably clear relationship between such exposure and the development of an injury or illness. For example, exposure to too much noise can result in hearing loss.

The underlying issue distinguishing construction from general industry is the dynamic, non-routine environment of a construction site. In general industry, ergonomic improvement can be addressed in large part by making changes to the work environment itself. In construction, on the other hand, the work environment is not a fixed work station, but changing all the while the job is happening.

In essence, though there are tools that measure simple chemical or physical exposures (like noise) in any work environment, a tool to measure the amount of musculoskeletal stressors in non-routine environments has not yet been widely adopted.

The COHP has developed PATH to respond to this challenge. Posture, Tools, Activities, Handing is a system for quantifying the posture, repetition and forces used in any job, regardless of the environmental configurations. Once a researcher can define the basic work elements of a task, such as hammering a concrete form, then he or she can demonstrate the corresponding postures that are necessary. The forces involved can be quantified through a large sample of workers engaged in a task.

Logically, then, a defined ergonomic risk, as measured by PATH, can be tested epidemiologically, and, just as noise levels correspond to observable loss of hearing, resulting musculoskeletal disorders can be determined.

Similarly, PATH can demonstrate how much a risk factor is reduced by any particular intervention. Work in a construction environment, then, is no different than work in general industry when seen through the eyes of a tool like PATH.

Now that the science is there, the protection of the construction worker is clearly a matter of politics. Who should decide how much is too much?

Produced by the Construction Occupational Health Program, U-Mass.- Lowell under grant CCU317202 from NIOSH through the Center to Protect Workers' Rights. The research is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIOSH.