“Safety first.”

What construction manager doesn’t utter those words loudly and clearly just about every day? Trouble is, tradespeople often don’t believe them, and perhaps with good reason. Many managers sincerely emphasize the importance of safety, but, consciously or not, they stress even more the imperative of getting the job done and making money on it. The real message isn’t lost on workers, who may cut corners or work unsafely to meet daily production targets.

Now comes a study by researchers at Colorado State University that finds workers report less job-related pain when they believe employers place equal emphasis on productivity and employees’ safety and well-being.  The 10-page article, by lead author Krista Hoffmeister and others, appears in Applied Ergonomics and focuses on research conducted at a large manufacturing plant. 

Hoffmeister has conducted extensive research in the construction business and has a clear message for construction-company owners.

“What it comes down to is communicating an alignment between values,” she says. “When there’s an alignment between your values for safety and productivity, you have better safety, better productivity and better quality than if you were to value one over the other. It gets a little tricky, because it’s easy to say that you value both (productivity and safety), but it’s harder to behave like you value both.

“I think that the best way to do that is to give ownership and empowerment to your employees,” Hoffmeister says. “In order for employees to think that both safety and productivity are valued, they have to get the idea that the company wants them to behave in a way that maximizes both.

“I think it’s a new way to think about things, because companies are always saying, ‘Safety first, safety first, safety first.’ And in reality, safety should be on par with things like productivity and quality. Obviously, your business can’t compete if it doesn’t have a good quality output and if it’s not producing it quickly enough or efficiently enough. And so this idea that (safety, productivity and quality) are all valued equally is a little bit different from what companies are used to.”

Another new idea may be the concept of getting out in front of employees’ job-related pain and attending to it before it grows into a workers’ compensation claim.  Stephen Brown, CEO of Briotix, a Centennial, Colo.-based company that helps organizations improve their ergonomics, says many musculoskeletal problems and repetitive motion injuries are preventable or can be identified early and resolved relatively quickly.

Through what Brown describes as “early symptom intervention,” employers can give workers exercises to do or other strategies to alleviate pain. Brown says that, in his company’s experience, workers’ compensation claims or hospitalization have been avoided in 92% of cases in which employees’ pain was addressed early.

Brown emphasizes the need for employers to collect data about workers’ pain and injuries and uses the terms “leading and lagging indicators” to refer to pain symptoms and workers’ compensation claims, respectively. Lagging indicators, he says, can be helpful after the fact in analyzing on-the-job injuries, but leading indicators such as employees’ complaints about pain can offer substantial dividends.

Specifically, Brown says, leading indicators can help employers create risk assessments that can identify situations where employees are feeling pain and determine what’s causing it. For example, if five people in a department of 25 have sore shoulders, “that gives us the opportunity to provide training or look at the equipment they’re using. That’s a better use of our time versus waiting for employees to report a workers’ compensation claim or go out of work for a health care claim.”

How can employers effectively address on-the-job risks? Matt Ogle, safety manager for JE Dunn Construction in Denver, describes a “hierarchy of controls” in which the first choice is to engineer out the risk, the second choice is to use administrative solutions—such as rotating workers through jobs that might create repetitive-motion injuries—and the third choice is to use personal protective equipment such as goggles, gloves, knee pads, etc.

As an example, Craig Halpern, vice president and director of risk control for insurance brokerage firm IMA in Denver, cites installing a plumbing assembly in a cramped space. Knee pads might make the installer more comfortable, but the job still can place him or her in an awkward, strained position for an hour or longer. Better, Halpern says, is prefabricating the assembly on a table while standing, which engineers out the risk. The completed assembly can then simply be plugged in, without having a worker exposed for an extended time in an uncomfortable and potentially injurious position.

Such a strategy may improve quality as well. Halpern, a certified professional ergonomist, says, “There are lot of studies that show a bleed-over effect between (safety and) productivity and quality, because oftentimes if you’re working in a crouched, constrained position trying to assemble some ductwork or a plumbing fixture or run electrical, you’re exasperated and fatigued because you’re trying to work in a very awkward position. Not only can that lead to a strain injury, but it can also lead to a construction defect or poor quality, and chances are it’s going to take more time to build that building.”

Halpern also recommends that employers conduct pre-employment physical exams to check for problems that workers may already have, especially with range of motion. Data from the exams can help mitigate a claim if, for example, a worker has a 15% loss of motion following a repetitive-motion injury but had a 5% deficit even before starting the job.

Pain at the Office

Not all construction jobs are outdoors and require strenuous physical work. Office jobs have ergonomic issues as well, and the Denver-based office of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has a few answers.

As part of its mission for the federal government and the public, including private business, the GSA tests office equipment and offers advice on indoor ergonomics. Recent visitors to the Denver GSA have included the American Institute of Architects, Fentress Architects and furniture manufacturer Steelcase.

Andrew Myers, the Denver GSA’s resident expert on ergonomics, cites what he calls “a new adage”—namely, that “sitting is the new smoking.” 

With that in mind, Myers encourages office workers to stay on their feet as much as possible. Meetings, for example, can be conducted in small “huddle rooms,” and height-adjustable desks can be set up for standing as well as sitting. 

One new product being evaluated by the Denver GSA is called “The Level.” Created by a company called FluidStance, it looks like a skateboard with a narrow crossbeam underneath and requires people standing on it to shift their weight constantly to stay in balance. The GSA Denver office also offers 2-mph treadmills equipped with screens, so people can walk leisurely while answering emails or doing routine computer work.

With challenges both indoors and out, the construction industry finds itself positioned to address ergonomics across the board. JE Dunn’s Ogle emphasizes the importance of identifying physical work positions before construction begins, of coaching tradespeople about body mechanics and of using the hierarchy of controls to prevent on-the-job injuries. 

That advice, along with recent revelations about balancing safety and productivity, may give construction-company owners new strategies to control costs for both workers’ compensation and health care plans.