Study aims to boost safety in construction

Lisa Jaegers (left), research patient coordinator in medicine, talks with Ann Marie Dale, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, at the Shriners Hospitals for Children-St. Louis construction site on the Washington University Medical Center campus. Sheet metal workers Matt Lafary (foreground) and John Byrne work to install a heating and cooling system. The workers are using safety techniques to determine if participatory ergonomics can lower the frequency of construction-site injuries. (Credit: E. Holland Durando)

​Construction workers often injure themselves lifting heavy materials, working in awkward positions and performing repetitive tasks. Ann Marie Dale, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has conducted several intervention studies to evaluate methods to reduce work-site injuries affecting hands, knees, neck and the lower back.

She currently is studying whether participatory ergonomics — allowing workers to choose tools and work practices they feel most comfortable with in performing daily tasks — can lower the frequency and severity of construction-site injuries in muscles, tendons and nerves.
Through some trial and error, Dale and her colleagues have determined that engaging construction contractors and safety representatives, along with their employees, is crucial in research to develop and improve safety training.
But finding construction contractors willing to participate in research on workplace safety can be challenging because of the fast-paced nature of the work. That changed when Dale and her colleague, Lisa Jaegers, research patient coordinator in medicine, met Fritz Hoffmeister during a five-year contractor-based study on participatory ergonomics. Hoffmeister is the safety director at C&R Mechanical Co., an employee-owned St. Louis-based mechanical contractor and engineering firm.
Fritz Hoffmeister (center), safety director at C&R Mechanical Co., consults with Lisa Jaegers at the Shriners Hospitals for Children-St. Louis construction site. Ann Marie Dale, PhD, is in the background. Jaegers and Dale collaborated with Hoffmeister and his company on a study to determine if participatory ergonomics can lessen construction-site injuries.
“Hoffmeister was receptive to our ideas and also gave us input on how he thought we could improve the training of the workers,” said Dale, who is also an assistant professor of occupational therapy. “The level of his involvement was unusual and very helpful for our study.”
As part of the study, on cold, windy days last winter during the construction of an outlet mall in Chesterfield, Dale and Jaegers observed sheet metal workers from C&R using snips to cut sheet metal and screw guns to insert screws. They also saw workers lifting heavy pieces of sheet metal duct, using repetitive hand motions to assemble pieces and standing in awkward positions to get tasks accomplished.
Together, the researchers and Hoffmeister, who recently received a national safety award from the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust, developed safer ways for workers to complete their tasks. In six weekly pre-dawn meetings in a trailer at the construction site, Dale and Jaegers delivered training to 16 sheet metal workers in “tool box talks.” Some of the topics included posture tips and stretching, pre-planning and choosing hand tools.
The workers responded favorably to the program and actively participated in the training sessions. Preliminary study results indicate that the workers had an increased awareness of the risk of injuring themselves. They also tried new tools and sometimes altered the way they performed work tasks. The researchers are conducting additional analyses.
Dale and Jaegers hope to disseminate information from this study to other work sites where similar tasks are performed.

workers frequently are exposed to many hazards on the job,” said Bradley
Evanoff, MD, the Richard A. and
Elizabeth Henby Sutter Professor of Occupational, Industrial and Environmental
Medicine and chief of the Division of General Medical Sciences. “This study
was a great example of a local company working with our researchers on the
important goal of improving safety in this industry.” ​

This research was funded by the Center for Construction Research and Training, which is supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.