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Builders go through the motions

By Sean Ryan

The young guys on his carpentry crew pay more attention to stretching exercises after they hear John Niffenegger’s back crack when he gets off his knees during a flooring job.

Niffenegger, who worked in a lumberyard carrying concrete bags and timbers before starting a 25-year construction career, is a carpenter foreman with Building Service Inc., Milwaukee. He said he injured his back about 10 years ago after carrying too many heavy materials up stairs.

Niffenegger said he didn’t stretch until after the injury.

“But I tend to tell people, the younger guys, the apprentices, I tell them to be careful.”

Wisconsin safety directors who promote stretching and exercise to prevent muscle strains, pulls and bad backs say the programs work better than federal safety regulations would. But there is a possibility that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will revive the effort to enforce ergonomics standards.

Contractors are targeting ergonomics problems caused by repeated motion and moving heavy objects, said Bob Emmerich, president of safety consultant Safe-Con LLC, Madison. Although it is counter to builders’ tough-guy image to stretch before each workday, builders’ voluntary methods will work better than an OSHA standard that will probably generate a lot of confusion, Emmerich said.

“My belief is, speaking specifically of ergonomics now,” Emmerich said, “is the industry will go farther with a proactive approach, working with the insurance companies and the medical profession on this.”

On Friday, OSHA proposed new rules that would force companies to tally musculoskeletal disorders — muscle strains and pulls, bad backs — on OSHA 300 safety logs. Comments about the proposed rules are due March 15.

OSHA drafted ergonomics rules in 2001, but never implemented them. Gathering data on ergonomics injuries is necessary before OSHA revives the rule, said Dan Burazin, safety director for the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee.

But the proposed rule change is not a prelude to a broader ergonomics standard, according to an e-mail attributed to OSHA Public Affairs Director Diana Petterson.

Burazin said dealing with ergonomics rules is difficult because, for instance, a backache could be caused by a work accident or a weekend football game. Also, he said, rules must spell out specific requirements, or contractors may not understand how to satisfy them.

“It’s very difficult to pinpoint as to what is compliance, and am I doing everything I need to do?” Burazin said. “You may think you are, but then, all of the sudden, you get a citation.”

Insurance companies do not set ergonomics rules for builders, but they tell companies to make their workers shape up if they have multiple injuries from moving heavy equipment, said Brad Stehno, account executive and safety consultant for R&R Insurance Services Inc., Waukesha.

The message, which he said younger workers and some companies do not take seriously, is builders should look after their personal health like a professional athlete, with good diets, exercise and on-site stretching.

Stehno said he has mixed feelings about OSHA ergonomics rules. On the plus side, he said, they would force companies to take ergonomics more seriously.

But on the down side, any new rules would represent more regulations to follow, he said.

Stehno said few companies have formal ergonomics programs.

One such company is M.A. Mortenson Co., Brookfield, which requires workers to stretch at the beginning of the workday and after lunch, said Doug Mortenson, Milwaukee operating group safety director. Workers who have done it for a while end up appreciating the program, he said, but workers’ initial reaction is usually more skeptical.

“There’s sometimes some resistance,” he said, “where they don’t see the point in doing it.”

Builders are also using new equipment, such as hydraulic scaffolds, to cut down on worker strain, Emmerich said. And contractors have physical therapists examine their workers and assign them exercise schedules for “work hardening,” so they are fit for their daily tasks, he said.

Niffenegger said he went through a similar physical therapy program after his injury, and now stretches at home before going to work, although not every day.

“I know that it’s important,” he said, “and I think it’s important, but still I don’t do it enough.”

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