July 2009: Playing It Safe


July 2009

Zach EverettPlaying It Safe

Is Your Back Outta Whack?

The mention of back injuries makes mason contractors cringe, and for good reason. When a person has an injury, it is serious. It affects every part of his life, from job performance to playing with the kids at home. A back injury can last for the rest of a person’s life, depending on the severity. Soft-tissue damage can heal quickly, such as a strain, but disc and nerve damage may take years to heal and may never heal completely.

These injuries affect the mason contractor in a big way. Great employees are put out of commission by back injuries. That, of course, is bad for two reasons: a friend is in pain, and he’s not producing. He may be on light duty or off work totally. Either way, production is lost and, many times, he has to be replaced.

Add to the pain, suffering and lost production the medical costs of the injury. Medical expenses for back injuries are significant. Even after conservative treatments, costs quickly can sore into the thousands and, if surgery is needed, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lost wages also must be paid.
We work in an industry that requires we lift heavy object all day, every day. It tends to bring back injuries front and center, doesn’t it? There are things we can do to minimize the hazards, though. Let’s look at the hazards through the lens of position.

Mortar mixing
Lifting bags of mortar proves to be a back-injury culprit too often. This can be minimized or prevented in several ways. Using bulk containers instead of bagged goods is becoming more common. The bulk goods container empties directly into the mixer, and the employee never lifts a bag. Some suppliers of bagged goods may offer a smaller bag, for instance a 45-pound bag instead of a 90-pound bag, which would cut the stress on the back in half. If bags must be lifted, assure the stock is right beside the mixer, so the employee doesn’t have to walk with it as far. Never dead lift a bag from the ground. Have the forklift operator assist in keeping the top of the pallet of bags between the knuckles when hanging at the side and the chest of the employee by putting empty pallets under the bags as they are removed. Some mixers are designed to help in back-injury prevention. These “low level” mixers allow the employee to place the bags at about waist high, rather than having to left the bags up to the standard-height mixer.

Mason tender
Shoveling is a back whacker that can bite this employee. Shoveling while bent over puts incredible strain on the back. More weight and leverage is applied to the low back, so keeping the back straight is the key as is not overloading the shovel. Stocking brick, block or stone is also a hazard. When possible, use equipment to save employees’ backs. Warehouse forklifts and electric pallet jacks are examples, and even on scaffolds, material carts and dollies can be utilized.

One of the biggest factors of mason back injuries I have seen is handling over-sized stone. Whether the stone is cast, cut, or chopped, when it’s too big, it’s too big. You can use winches, chain-falls, and other stone-setting equipment that works well in those situations. I recall a job during which two men could have each lifted a stone, but we tried using a crane instead. The stone was set on the scaffold with the forklift as normal, which made the travel time for the crane virtually zero. The crane set each piece from the scaffold deck to just a few feet away in the wall, and production was great.

General tips
Here are some tips for lifting that everyone should incorporate.

  • Keep your back straight when you lift. Bend your knees, and don’t twist with a load. That may sound silly to mason, but if you will pivot on one foot, turning the whole body, instead of twisting the back, you may save yourself a slipped disc.
  • Hold the load close to the body. That keeps the center of gravity close, thereby not putting the strain on your low back as a counter weight to support the object.
  • Stretch before you work. Loosening up muscles is important before jumping right into hard work, especially lifting. Any professional athlete will tell you the same.

Good intentions are not really good unless the intent becomes a reality. So, someone with authority must establish and enforce a back-injury prevention plan. It’s not easy, but it can be done. It can start with you: you’ll do what it takes to keep our folks’ backs from getting outta whack.

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