Business Tips

construction neck and back injury

Why chronic upper back and neck pain can slow you down on the job

As most industry veterans know, no two days on a jobsite are ever the same. Nevertheless, most days involve some heavy lifting, bending and contorting to get the job done. Over time, performing these movements can result in chronic back and neck pain.

The construction industry is one of the most dangerous around and has some the highest rates of work-related injuries. Musculoskeletal disorders and injuries, which involve muscles, joints, tendons, cartilage and nerves of the limbs and upper and lower back, are the some of the most common, accounting for one-third of all injuries and illnesses causing loss of work time.

According to John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute and director of Environmental, Health, Safety and Sustainability at the National Safety Council, it may not be as easy to get a baseline for risk of back and neck injury in construction as it is in, for example, manufacturing. Likewise, monitoring workers’ pain may be difficult due to the quickly changing nature of the job site and the lack of task repetition.

Monitoring construction workers’ pain is difficult due to the quickly changing nature of the job site and the lack of task repetition.

“I think the way we get around that is do more careful planning of the type of work you’re doing and look at the risk exposure of every single job every single day, to some degree,” he says.

While most job-related safety programs focus on falls and other emergencies, Dony suggests that other work-related injuries that can crop up over time should also be addressed. During their morning huddles, employers or team leaders can help workers prepare their bodies for the day through a series of stretches.

Preventative stretching

Performing these stretches can help construction workers reduce their risk of injury (people with existing injuries should check with their doctors before doing this routine, however):

  • Chest pull: Lacing your fingers together behind your back, roll your shoulders backward while lifting your hands a few inches behind your back.
  • Neck stretch: Tilt your head gently to one side (without twisting your neck). Using the arm from that side, reach over your head so that your fingers touch your ear, and gently push your head towards your shoulder. Avoid pulling your head—instead, use the weight of your hand for the stretch. Hold for around 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.
  • Shoulder and upper back stretch: Stand with your legs hip-distance apart and place your right hand on your left shoulder. Using the left hand, pull the right elbow across the chest toward the left shoulder and hold for about 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
  • Shoulder circles: Shrug your shoulders and gently roll your shoulders back. Repeat five times.

A chronic issue

Chronic pain is a major issue in the construction industry, and it’s likely to get worse as construction workers continue to age, Dony says. Currently, the median age of construction employees is 42.6, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the average age of the general U.S. workforce is 41.

About 40 percent of construction workers over 50 report having chronic back pain. What is more, injured workers are 45 per cent more likely to also be diagnosed with depression than workers without injury.

Quantifying the full impact of pain on the construction industry can be difficult. Along with increased rates of depression and substance abuse, chronic pain can increase the risk of other work-related injuries. Many people work through the pain or avoid reporting their pain, which can also lead to decreased productivity.

“Part of the challenge is that in a dangerous industry, you’ve got a lot of types of injuries, and therefore lots of types of risks that are much more evident than chronic pain, and that can have a more serious immediate consequence,” Dony says.

But chronic pain issues can can have a big impact on construction employers and workforce productivity, he explains. His general advice: “Get to know the areas where safety and health and well-being overlap.”