The first time I heard this statement, from our general manager Joel, was early in my tenure with INTAKS and quite frankly, it blew my mind, that an attitude like this could still prevail in a country where we know so much about health and safety.
I guess a little bit about me will help indicate why I might be so taken aback by those words. My background is not in scaffolding or construction. I have a Certificate in Fitness and a Bachelor of Sports and Recreation, with a strong interest in long term community health. My biomechanics paper was about landing patterns for professional netballers to reduce lower body injury. I also have an interest in health and safety, serving on multiple workplace committees and acting as Health and Safety Representative in several workplaces. I am also married to a former “tough guy”, whose many physical feats include competing in the Currie Cup in South Africa in the 1980s (a time when, if you received a torn hamstring or a concussion, you got a quick 5 minute break and you were back on the field), and running up and down Mauao with a backpack twice his weight multiple times a day whilst training for his post in the Tauranga Armed Offenders Squad. He’s had one knee surgically repaired, one hip replaced, requires the other hip to be replaced and his other knee to also be replaced. He’s 56, and while still happy enough, his life has limitations. We don’t go on adventure holidays, or even walking holidays, he no longer plays any of his beloved sports, he can’t walk the dog, and he will live every day with a varying degree of pain for the rest of his life.
With all of the above in mind, the idea of having to “lug” steel scaffolding all day, every day, when there are significantly lighter alternatives on the market seems fairly counter-intuitive to leading a long and healthy life. Just one steel 6 metre tube weighs over 26kg, compared to one aluminium tube weighing in at around 6kg. I imagine the difference between lifting those weights over many years would be significant and would hazard a guess that an aluminium installer could potentially enjoy a longer career and possibly a more physically comfortable retirement.
We all know that heavy lifting comes with an inherent risk of injury, particularly when lifting load above shoulder height. Scaffolders somewhat accept the risk of sprains, strains, back injuries and abdominal hernias. Health and safety education teaches us how to lift safely and mitigate the risk of incidents that cause harm, often focusing on singular events that lead to acute injury and how to avoid these. When these injuries do occur, we hope that they will heal swiftly, and we can get back on the tools as soon as possible. But what about injuries that occur over time as a result of repetitive heavy lifting?
Workers in roles with high levels of heavy physical load have been found to be at much greater risk of earlier onset osteoarthritis of the knee, hip and hand . According to the Center for Construction Research and Training, around 1 in 3 construction workers have chronic back pain from musculoskeletal damage . Recent studies have even linked high occupational physical activity in men with early mortality from cardiovascular disease . All these things suggest to me that if there is any way at all to minimise the risk of injury, whether it be acute or chronic, then employers in the construction industry have an obligation to explore these options.
Let’s not even go into the financial benefits of a physically healthier workplace with fewer injuries. That’s not what we’re here for, and I would think it’s fairly obvious. What we are here for is to overcome an old school attitude that potentially leads to the physical impairment and early mortality of a huge sector of New Zealand workers later in life.
According to WorkSafe, New Zealand’s primary workplace health and safety regulator “you need to select the most effective controls that are proportionate to the risk and appropriate to your work situation” . Scaffolding is high risk for many reasons, one being related to repetitive lifting of heavy loads. If there is an effective solution to mitigate this risk, why wouldn’t you take it? It’s time the “tough guy” mentality was left behind. We know more about long term health than ever before. Use this knowledge to take proactive steps towards a healthier, more productive workforce so that we can all live a long, healthy and pain free life.
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2. "Occupational Disease Among Construction Workers". The Centre for Construction Research and Training. Retrieved 19 July, 2019.
3. Coenen, P. Huysmans, M. Holtermann, A. Krause, N. Straker, L. van der Beek, A. van Mechelen, W (2018). "Do highly physically active workers die early? A systematic review with meta-analysis of data from 193 696 participants". British Journal of Sports Medicine. 52 (20).
4. "Lifting and carry - what's the problem?". Worksafe. Retrieved 19 July, 2019.