Jorgensen tries to reduce that pain in the back
12:02:00 AM CDT - Thursday, May 03, 2007
By Cass Bruton
Imagine sitting in a chair on the end of a bouncing pogo stick all day long. That's what it's like for many construction workers who operate heavy earthmoving equipment.
Their daily work often exposes them to strong vibrations, jolting, jarring and awkward body postures. As many in the construction industries know, all that forceful movement can literally be a pain in the back, especially the lower back. Chronic discomfort and even crippling disabilities can, and frequently do, result.
Lower back injuries not only disrupt lives, they increase employers' costs as well, especially when lower back problems are related to everyday, on-the-job tasks. Studies have shown that some of the most vulnerable to lower back problems are those who operate heavy earthmoving equipment. They are part of a large sector of workers who are at risk for serious and life-changing injury on the job.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than 9 million construction workers build and maintain roads, houses, workplaces and physical infrastructure. Today, construction is one of the eight sectors that NIOSH is targeting via the National Occupational Research Agenda, through which NIOSH researchers are working to identify causes and develop programs to prevent injuries and fatalities in construction.
|File photo by David Dinell|
Michael Jorgensen, right, conducts research that looks at reducing back and other repetitive workplace injuries.
"Ergonomic solutions have been slow to diffuse in the construction industry, even where such solutions have low financial costs and potentially large benefits to workers, contractors, and owners," according to the NIOSH Web site.
Michael J. Jorgensen is one of several experts working with NIOSH to change this situation.
Jorgensen, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at Wichita State, and several graduate students from WSU's industrial and manufacturing engineering department have teamed with researchers from NIOSH to evaluate strategies to reduce the risk of injury and body discomfort for workers who operate heavy earthmoving equipment.
Recently, they conducted three studies that are beginning to show results for helping to improve conditions for these at-risk construction workers.
"Part of our approach is to design the interface between the human and the system to make it more efficient, to reduce fatigue on the job, and to reduce the chance for errors, accidents and injuries," explained Jorgensen.
"While operating earthmoving equipment, operators are exposed to long hours of sitting in a cab that is being jolted and jarred due to operating equipment over rough terrain," he said, "and many operate levers and controls that require reaching and awkward postures of the body."
To look for solutions, Jorgensen's team first conducted an intervention study to assess the effectiveness of a continuous passive lumbar motion system. The CPLMS is an additional lumbar seat support that is placed on the seat of the equipment. This specially designed support can cyclically inflate and deflate (thus changing the lumbar curvature of the lower back).
Jorgensen and a graduate student, as well as researchers from NIOSH, spent up to three weeks at various construction sites in Iowa to assess the impact of using the CPLMS to ease body discomfort throughout the workday.
Results indicate that the majority of the equipment operators felt comfortable using the CPLMS and wanted to use it longer than the study period. Also, the study suggested that while using the CPLMS may not prevent low back pain from occurring, its use may effectively reduce the rate of development of low back pain.
Garry Edmondson, who operates the training center for the International Union of Operating Engineers in Clearwater, Kan., can attest to the success of Jorgensen's research. A construction worker himself, Edmondson knows firsthand the health hazards of operating heavy equipment, and Jorgensen's research impressed him.
"I tried it (the CPLMS) myself," he said, "and brought my students out, too.
"This study got data from the field, so it was not just theory, but cold hard facts."
Jorgensen and his team are working on other solutions for workers as well, including the employees who rivet aluminum skins together in the aircraft industry.
"There are many emerging issues in ergonomics as it relates to the workplace," he said, "and the cost of injuries is driving new ergonomics research.
"One of my goals is to help increase safety, health and ergonomics in the smaller to mid-sized companies that don't necessarily have the individuals who dedicate time to these issues.
"Escalating health care costs are a serious issue today, and we are also faced with challenges to keep our aging workforce at work," he added.
There is much yet to be done to make work safer and healthier for millions of people, he said.