Design For Safety


January 2009


Design For Safety

The masonry trade, particularly for block masons, is physically demanding and often dangerous. Workplace injuries take a toll on workers, timelines and overall profitability. New product innovation and the adoption of engineered products and processes relieve many physical demands of the trade, making masons more productive and the profession more attractive to new personnel; and increasing bottom line profits. However, the masonry industry cannot bear the risks of change alone. Safety professionals, architects/designers and the workers compensation insurance industry must lead the effort by specifying “inherently safe” products.

The construction industry has the highest injury incident rate of all industry sectors, with the masonry sub-sector exceeding industry averages. Chronic, cumulative injuries take a toll on the productivity and work life of block masons. Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD) affect muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. MSDs represent 40 percent of reported lost-time injuries. Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTD) result from chronic or gradual degeneration due to continual exposure to body stresses and strains. Additionally, unreported injuries cost masonry companies lost productivity, absenteeism and loss of trained personnel.

Masons are one of the highest “risk groups” for non-traumatic MSDs of the back, shoulders, arms and legs. They perform four basic movements that expose them to MSDs:


  • Bending/stretching
  • Handling heavy weights
  • Twisting/working in awkward positions
  • Exerting gripping/pinching hand force.



 Information about the Masonry Industry
 Figure 1. Body part graphics from NIOSH Publication 2007-122

A significant majority of masonry injuries result from this lifting cycle (See Figure 1). Back and shoulder/upper arm injuries account for almost 50 percent of lost-time injuries. Lifting a heavy block with elbows above the shoulder or hands above the head, bending to lift and holding a block at arm’s length to lower it over rebar contribute to back/shoulder/upper arm injuries. Lifting more than 5 tons per day throughout one’s masonry career builds MSDs into CTDs, which affect masons far into “retirement,” becoming insurance and Medicare health issues.

When handling rebar, workers are exposed to further musculoskeletal injuries. Tying rebar requires gripping, stooping/bending, and rapid hand/wrist motion. The wrists, hands and fingers account for 13 percent of reported masonry lost-time injuries. Gloves help protect the hands, but exacerbate squeezing and finger/thumb pressure issues (See Figure 2). Severe injuries from impalement on rebar also escalate injury costs.

Information about the Masonry Industry
Figure 2.

The masonry industry is highly competitive. With thin profit margins, there is little financial incentive for masonry contractors to provide more than the minimum safety training, train on new products/processes. or adopt inherently safe products. This sector is dominated by small businesses, 70 percent of which are self-employed masons or firms with 20 or fewer employees. The majority of masons learn their trade on-the-job, learning the “way it has always been done.” Workers may mask injuries to avoid a reputation as being accident prone, due to of fears that reporting injuries could affect employment or immigration status. This cultivates an environment in which MSD/CTD injuries are accepted as the norm. However, the cumulative time lost to injury significantly impacts job costs, cutting into already thin profits.

The University of Oregon has led research to evaluate industry innovations that alleviate bodily stress and injury associated with concrete block construction. Scaffolding, open-ended CMUs, lightweight/AAC Block and two-person lift teams address various aspects of the MDS/CTD issue. The newest innovative product for safer block construction, BARTARGET, significantly reduces injuries associated with lifting block and tying/working around exposed rebar.

While some of these inherently safer new products and methods may have higher upfront costs, they increase the overall profit through productivity gains that easily overcome initial expenses. These savings translate to the masonry contractor through more injury-free days, faster job completion, longer life for skilled masons and a reduction in safety violations and insurance injury claims.

Individual masons and masonry contractors cannot absorb the cost of safer products alone. The masonry industry, architects/designers, safety organizations and the workers compensation insurance industry must pioneer (mandate) the use of safer work products. Safety is too important to be “optional.” Inherently safe work products have the potential to reduce work place injuries beyond what increased oversight and compliance audits can achieve. “Inherently safe” products must be designed and specified for construction projects in a “Design for Construction Safety” approach. Not only will this lead to better working conditions for masons, it will, ultimately, increase bottom line profits in all sectors.

Masonry construction is hard, dangerous and physically demanding. The physical stresses cannot be eliminated. However, with enlightened industry leadership, those stresses can be significantly reduced by institutionally supporting innovation and facilitating the more rapid adoption of inherently safe work products and process changes.



Related Posts

  • 49
    March 2015 Saw Blades By Jim Cook The thing about blades is that they can always be a little sharper. That’s a maxim the masonry blade industry has taken to heart as it continues to innovate, making blades more versatile, more durable and less expensive to produce. The masonry blade industry has done much to…
    Tags: masonry, products
  • 47
    March 2011 Industry Report Creating the Future By Sarah B. Atkins Both residential and commercial construction activity have reached record or near-record lows. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, we have just lived through the lowest level of new housing starts since they began tracking this data in 1959. The trends are starting to change,…
    Tags: masonry, industry, construction
  • 46
    September 2012 Business Management What It Takes Interview by Jennifer Morrell The best way to learn what it takes to keep a masonry construction business in the black is to go straight to the sources. Masonry consulted three of our industry’s best, each with a unique perspective on successfully managing his masonry business. We spoke…
    Tags: masonry, industry, work
  • 43
    May 2009 Block New Masonry Block Systems Photo courtesy of Oldcastle Architectural Inc. Same classic look in less time offers opportunities for masonry contractors By Brett Martin Using new masonry products and techniques can make mason contractors understandably apprehensive, especially with their reputations on the line. But new block systems can help contractors gain new…
    Tags: block, masonry, products
  • 42
    May 2009 Scaffolding State of the Scaffolding Industry Photo courtesy of EZ Scaffold By Jennifer Morrell Scaffolding plays a huge role in the masonry industry. To learn how scaffolding companies are continuing to survive and thrive in such a challenging economy, Masonry went directly to the sources. Executives from three solid scaffolding companies answered a…
    Tags: safety, industry, products, masonry


Zachary Zuldema 1st Place (2nd Year) Winner Interview at the World of Concrete

Zachary Zuldema 1st Place (2nd Year) Winner Interview at the World of Concrete

Bill Dentinger 2015 Inductee MCAA Hall of Fame

Bill Dentinger 2015 Inductee MCAA Hall of Fame

John Smith, Jr.

John Smith, Jr. receives the 2015 MCAA C. DeWitt Brown Leadman Award

2015 MCAA Fastest Trowel On The Block Winner

2015 MCAA Fastest Trowel On The Block Winner

Daniel Furr 1st Place Winner

Daniel Furr 1st Place Winner (First Year), Masonry Skills Challenge

Synpro Products

Masonry Magazine Video News Interview: Michael Goyne

Hydro Mobile Inc

Interview with Kevin O'Shea of Hydro Mobile, Inc.

Interview with Mark Kemp – Chairman, MCAA

Interview with Masonry Contractors Association of America Chairman, Mark Kemp

Mortar Net Solutions

Interview with Steve Fechino from Mortar Net Solutions

Pullman Ermator

Interview with Lyndon Kelsey of Pullman Ermator

Keene Building Products

Interview with Jim O'Neill of Keene Building Products