4 Ways to Move Safer and More Efficiently on the Construction Site

By Andrew Denmark, Construction Athletic Trainer Team Lead, Onsite Innovations, an Athletico Company

Originally published in Occupational Health & Safety – January 25, 2024

Construction sites are oft-changing, always-moving environments. One day a worker could be using a forklift, the next a crane and the next an old-school hammer and nail. When working with heavy machinery or special equipment, workers can make changes not only to maintain safety but to move their bodies in ways that reduce the risk of injury.

Think about professional athletes. A quarterback doesn’t just try to throw a football and hope he’s doing it right. Years of technique and training go into it. He learns how to use his arms, torso, legs and so on to control distance, height and velocity. Athletes are in tune with their body mechanics and practice specific movements that will limit their chance of injury.

When applied to construction workers, these same principles can improve safety, efficiency and overall morale on worksites. On-site athletic trainers can help introduce workers to movement techniques and exercises that will make their jobs a little easier while improving their overall health. Here are four areas that worksites should focus on to reduce injuries and improve efficiency.

1. Body Mechanics

Body mechanics is a term used to describe how people move naturally in their daily lives: how they sit, stand, lift, carry, bend and sleep. It involves posture, base of support, center of gravity and muscle usage. Poor body mechanics are often the cause of back pain and musculoskeletal conditions like muscle sprains, strains, joint pain or stiffness. On a construction site, proper body mechanics are crucial for work involving lifting, repositioning and bending.

Construction workers are often working in tight spaces or maneuvering themselves into irregular positions. Knowing how to properly use and move their bodies is one of the best ways to prevent injury. Stretch and flex routines are common on worksites but skilled athletic trainers can take them a step further by tailoring them to focus on the movements or muscle groups that workers will be using that day. Splitting up workers based on their functions allows stretch and flex programs to get even more specific in addressing body movements and usage.

2. Ergonomics

Going hand in hand with body mechanics, ergonomics is about designing work environments, tasks and processes to fit a worker’s physical capabilities. From an athletic training standpoint, ergonomics means tailoring body movements to specific tasks to ensure workers are leveraging their muscles in a way that is safe and will provide the best output. For example, a lot of equipment on construction sites requires the use of significant force. An ergonomic assessment of workers, where athletic trainers observe workers performing tasks, can help the trainers understand how workers are gauging force and if they’re using the proper body mechanics in terms of base of support and muscle engagement.

On one worksite, athletic trainers observed that the overuse of equipment over time was hindering workers’ ability to efficiently maximize the force they use. Athletic trainers introduced hand grip exercises to increase flexibility and strength. This approach can be applied to various motions being performed by workers across a construction site, like how workers are lifting and moving materials. There are ways to improve stance so workers can better leverage body weight when lifting materials to reduce back injuries. There are also wrist movements that can prevent injuries when using hand-held equipment like rebar-tying tools. These are quick changes that workers can start implementing immediately with the help of athletic trainers.

3. Hand-Eye Coordination

Just like a baseball player needs to be able to see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, judge its speed and location and then use his hands to connect the bat to the ball, construction workers need strong hand-eye coordination to complete tasks successfully and safely. It’s not just about being able to hit a nail on the head. Hand-eye coordination is also important for operating cranes and placing lumber or steel. These tasks inherently bring safety hazards onto the worksite. Hand-eye coordination is critical to ensure objects are moved and machinery is operated safely. It’s also important in terms of reaction timing. Being able to react quickly when something goes awry can be the difference between coming away unscathed or with injuries.

There are exercises workers can incorporate into their routines to strengthen their hand-eye coordination. Reactive exercises like playing catch or bouncing a ball against the wall during breaks can help workers practice reaction timing. Exercises used in concussion rehab and cognitive therapy can also be applied for hand-eye coordination and to help fire up the brain. For example, things like eye saccades get workers to improve their eye precision and speed by moving their focus from one target to another.

4. Balance

On construction sites, workers often walk on uneven surfaces, stand on narrow platforms and work from heights. Balance is a crucial skill for performing tasks safely, effectively and efficiently. Balance is related to body mechanics and requires proper posture and weight distribution. It’s also something that many construction workers have trouble with, and suffering from certain injuries like concussions can further hinder their balance. Many construction workers struggle with balance due to a lack of neuromuscular control in the foot, ankle, knee and hip structures leading to causes such as slips, trips and falls, which can result in common lateral ankle sprains on a jobsite.

At one construction site that was seeing high numbers of slip, trip and fall injuries, athletic trainers used balance testing to see how workers would progress after the integration of balance practices. Using the Balance Evaluation Systems Test (BESTest), the athletic trainers scored workers on a variety of tasks that tested their balance. Surprisingly to site management and workers themselves, many did not advance past the first round of testing. To improve balance and reduce injury risk, athletic trainers began incorporating tailored balance exercises into the daily stretch and flex program. In the following three months, there were no slip, trip and fall injuries recorded.

Sustaining Health for Years to Come

In a traditional industry like construction, some workers can be resistant to preventive measures like ergonomics and movement exercises. However, athletic trainers hear all the time from veteran workers that they wish they had these tools to take care of their bodies sooner. What it comes down to is showing workers that these exercises and practices are going to help them keep their bodies healthy, prevent injuries and have long, successful careers.

Providing these resources and bringing athletic trainers onto the worksite also shows workers that they are cared for and their leadership is looking out for them. Programs like stretch and flex and group ergonomic assessments also offer additional opportunities for team building. Making workers feel more connected to their peers and their leadership boosts morale and overall productivity, while promoting safe practices.

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