It’s not uncommon for lineworkers to experience back and knee pain, especially later in life after they’ve been working for years climbing poles, repairing cables, digging holes, and handling heavy materials.
This pain is often caused by repeated stress on muscles, tendons and ligaments from overwork or overstrain. Known as musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, these types of injuries affect the soft tissues of the body and usually result from poor ergonomics. Other prominent MSDs among lineworkers are shoulder and hand injuries.
In an online article in Electric Co-op Today, Michigan Electric Co-op Association safety director Joe McElroy noted, “Climbing a pole is terrible on the knees, and transferring heavy equipment puts a strain on the lower back. There’s lots of twisting and repetitive movements.”
Medical care, including physical therapy and surgery, is often required to correct the damage, and in many instances injured workers experience some level of diminished movement or strength.
Mike Perko, NRECA chief wellness adviser and contractor, agrees. “The occupational work that a lineman does certainly puts a strain on the muscles and joints. Add in working in all kinds of weather often high above the ground and you’ll see an increased risk of muscular-skeletal injuries.”
According to an Incident Prevention article written by utility safety instructor Steve Hedden, MSDs can cause a multitude of complications beyond medical costs.
“Companies are experiencing increases in medical and workers’ compensation costs and a loss of valuable, experienced workers on job sites. Additionally, workers’ quality of life is being compromised as they approach retirement age due to the damage done to their bodies throughout their careers,” Hedden writes.
Work Risk Factors
MSDs don’t typically result from one particular incident – they are usually caused by minor injuries that repeatedly arise over an extended period of time. Sore muscles can often disguise themselves as simply the result of a particularly hard day’s work, but often soreness comes from working incorrectly. When workers don’t realize they are damaging their soft tissue, incorrect work habits remain the same and, subsequently, chronic injuries develop.
Risk factors depend upon duration of exposure, frequency of exposure, intensity of exposure, or a combination of these elements. Common job tasks that pose a risk to lineworkers include performing repetitive movements, performing work that requires force, lifting heavy objects, and working in an uncomfortable position.
Lineworkers often experience these exposures on a regular basis because safe work practices for avoiding electrical hazards outweigh safe practices for ergonomic hazards. An example is when a lineworker has to twist his body to be able to work safely below energized equipment and conductors. In these types of cases, avoiding energized equipment takes precedence over working in an ergonomically correct position.
Electric lineworker jobs are inherently strenuous on the body, even with modern equipment, and electrical safety precautions trump ergonomically correct working positions when both hazards are present.
So how do you reduce ergonomic risks for these type of jobs? One answer is found in stretching.
Stretching programs are an avenue more and more utilities are taking to battle MSDs. Utility linemen jobs require workers to perform intense physical activity. Stretching helps warm up the muscles, ligaments and tendons so they are less prone to injury.
According to Danny Raines, a utility safety consultant and affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Institute, many companies have reported a significant reduction in injuries after implementing stretching programs; some as much as 30% or more. Raines compares pre-work stretching to the warm-ups athletes perform before a sporting event.
A growing number of electric utility companies are teaching employees how to stretch at the beginning of the workday, as well as throughout the day for certain physically demanding tasks. This is especially important when employees will be working in cold weather.
Joe McElroy, safety director Michigan Electric Co-op Association, started testing out warm-up and strengthening exercises at Midwest Energy Cooperative in 2014 and has received positive feedback.
Another way to reduce MSDs is to teach employees to recognize when their bodies are bent in ergonomically incorrect postures. If it’s too late and an employee is already in pain, the next step is to identify the cause of the pain, assess if there is a way to minimize the exposure, and make the appropriate changes needed to prevent continued pain and injury.
Another way to work smarter is by assessing the work situation before starting a job, and planning how to reduce ergonomic risk factors beforehand. For example, if a lineworker needs to dig a hole or ditch, they should first determine where to throw the dirt to avoid twisting their body while lifting and throwing. The lineworker may also conclude that equipment is necessary to avoid the repetitive body motion that digging requires. Working smarter, not harder, requires assessing the scope of the job and bringing the correct equipment if needed.
Engineering out the Problem
Many ergonomic issues can also be avoided by engineering out problems through the design of workplaces, job tasks, equipment, and processes. This approach takes workers out of positions that could lead to MSDs.
For example, lineworkers can wear a belt or brace that supports their lower back while working in an elevated position. Lineworkers can also protect their backs by using equipment such as skirts that surround the area where a hole with be drilled for a pole. When the hole is dug, the dirt lands on the skirt rather than the ground, where a derrick truck lifts the skirt by its handles and places the dirt where it needs to go. The skirt helps protect workers’ backs by eliminating the need to manually move the dirt. Battery-powered cutting and compression tools are an option to help alleviate stress on hands and arms.
Improving workplace ergonomics for lineworkers involves multiple avenues. Providing workers with the right equipment, work processes, training, and education can greatly reduce the occurrence of MSDs.
To learn more about ergonomics, watch this short safety tip video.