Arthritis, particularly when it occurs in the hands, can affect a worker’s ability to carry out basic construction tasks like tying rebar, driving a forklift or even picking up a screwdriver. Employers need to be aware of how arthritis can affect the workplace and take steps to reduce its impact.
“Arthritis can lead to days away from work, force workers into early retirement and contribute to the shortage of skilled labor in the construction industry,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Pain caused by arthritis can also lead to the use of prescription opioids and increase risk of addiction.”
What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis refers to more than 100 musculoskeletal diseases and conditions that affect the joints. Osteoarthritis (OA), which is the most common type, is brought on by wear and tear. OA breaks down cartilage, the cushioning tissue between joints that allows smooth movement. When cartilage deteriorates, the joints rub together, causing stiffness, pain and inflammation.
The risk for osteoarthritis increases with age. Between 30 and 50 percent of all adults over age 65 have OA. Construction tasks that involve gripping, twisting, tugging and lifting increase risk for MSDs and in turn increase risk for OA.
Arthritis can develop in any joint, but the hands are the most common spot. Other areas of the body that are often affected by arthritis include the back and neck, shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles.
Treating Arthritis in the Hands
When OA develops in the hands, the fingers may become enlarged and misshapen due to the formation of bony growths or spurs. Hand exercises, treatment at home, diet and medication can all help treat arthritis.
These simple exercises can help maintain flexibility and can be done throughout the day at home and at work.
- Knuckle bends: Bend your middle knuckles as if you were making a claw with your hands. Then straighten your fingers again.
- Fists: Form a fist with your fingers and then uncurl your fingers. Work slowly to avoid pain.
- Finger touches: Touch your thumb to each fingertip in turn. If stretching your thumb hurts, don’t force it.
- Wall walking: Walk your fingers up a wall and then back down.
- Hot and cold compresses for pain and swelling. (Talk to your health care provider for guidance.)
- Splints on your wrist, thumb or fingers for support.
- Arthritis-friendly kitchen and gardening tools that have padding to ease grip.
The Arthritis Foundation recommends the Mediterranean diet, which includes dark-colored fruits and vegetables that help fight inflammation. Weight loss also reduces joint wear and tear throughout the body.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or naproxen can often provide relief. In severe instances, your health care provider may prescribe a prescription pain reliever that can be taken orally or injected. Physical therapy may also be recommended; surgery is a last resort.
What Else Can Employers Do?
Just as you encourage open reporting of injuries, encourage workers to speak up when their hands hurt and consider assigning them to a different task. You can also have workers participate in a stretch and flex program at the beginning of their shift. It’s also important to encourage workers to get treatment. Arthritis has no cure, but with awareness, this degenerative condition can often be managed, enabling workers to keep working and lead healthy lives.
Prevent MSDs, Prevent Arthritis
Storing building materials so they are easily accessed and providing ergonomically-designed tools that are lighter in weight, fit the hand better and require less force to operate can help reduce musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs) and the risk of arthritis.
Additional recommendations about what employers should do include:
- Requiring heavy loads to be lifted by two people.
- Establishing systems to rotate workers away from tasks to minimize the duration of continued exertion, repetitive motions and awkward postures.
- Ensuring pneumatic and power tools are properly used and maintained.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]