Not long ago, everything known about the effects of construction work on the long-term health and quality of life of Laborers was anecdotal – that is, derived from first-hand stories or family experience.
Because so often sons followed fathers into the craft and because Laborers’ families often came from the same communities, the disabilities were plain to see. Chronic pain, respiratory disease and loss of hearing were all too common, robbing retirees of their golden years.
The plight of older Laborers was clearly job-related, but the connection was sometimes ignored or suppressed – often, because the problems just seemed the inevitable result of a lifetime of hard work or, sometimes, because employers and government regulators denied the connection and instead blamed the personal habits of individual Laborers.
Today, the impacts of a lifetime of work are more thoroughly and scientifically documented in the conditions of older retirees. For instance, a 2006 study of Functional Impairment and Quality of Life in Retired Workers of the Construction Trades compared the health status of retired Laborers – who began their careers about 50 years ago – to men who had been communications workers or teachers during their careers. The data showed that Laborers were more than three times as likely to consider their overall health as poor or fair, twice as likely to experience limitations in their daily activity and more likely to report problems with vision, hearing or physical pain and other problems in their lower body, upper body and back areas.
“In the past,” says Joe Fowler, Executive Director of the LHSFNA, “it was sometimes hard to see how we could intervene in daily work to prevent long-term disabilities. Every company had its own sense of how best to manage health and safety, and, frankly, at a lot of companies, safety and health wasn’t much of a concern at all. We’ve come a long way in setting standards to ensure safety and health no matter where the workplace.”
One reason such progress has been possible is that the real cost of ignoring safety has become more apparent and better-documented through research and cost studies. “Our union was always at the forefront of the labor movement’s demand to raise the priority of health concerns,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, “and we insisted that a higher priority would serve management as well. Though the cost of a lifetime of hard labor is borne directly by our members in the quality of their retirement, it is shared by employers who must pay for the health and disability benefits we win through collective bargaining. Our reasoning finally won out in 1988 when, together with our signatory employers, we created the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America to raise the priority of these concerns. With the Fund, we help control costs for management while improving the quality of life for our members. It’s win-win.”
As the Laborers’ health and safety fund, the LHSFNA acknowledged and validated the anecdotal evidence of long-term disability among older and retired Laborers, and it addressed these problems in a variety of ways. For instance, it worked with the Laborers-AGC to integrate safety training into all aspects of the skills training for Laborers. It identified the most serious problems and developed educational materials to raise awareness among Laborers and their employers. It conducted or supported studies to document problems so that unconvinced employers and the government would take stronger action to improve job safety and health. It worked with employers to develop company-wide and site-specific safety programs. It also established programs to foster union-wide efforts to change detrimental personal habits that might affect health or safety. Progress has been made on all fronts.
The suggestion that Laborers contribute to their own health problems is most commonly asserted with regard to respiratory disease, due to the large number of workers who smoke. Thus, the Fund initiated a smoking cessation program. It also warned against alcohol abuse and joined in the creation of drug-free workplace programs. This year, it inaugurated a nutrition and fitness program. By encouraging Laborers to adopt healthier lifestyles, these programs not only directly improve the short-range and long-term prospects for a good life, they also minimize the likelihood that personal negligence will be used to deflect the necessity of taking health or safety initiatives. Information about the Fund’s health promotion programs is available in the Health Promotion section of the LHSFNA website.
Due to the extensive noise on construction sites, hearing loss would seem an obvious danger. However, because it develops slowly and imperceptibly over many years, many workers do not recognize the problem and some employers – for whom any individual Laborer may work for only a few months – are reluctant to accept responsibility for it. Thus, the Fund worked hard to develop a reasonable, comprehensive hearing conservation program and to encourage its voluntary adoption throughout the industry. Much of that work, including the output of the Construction Noise Control Partnership, is available in the Occupational Safety and Health section of the LHSFNA our website.
The disability and chronic pain of soft-tissue injuries – many the cumulative effect of years of work in awkward positions or with vibrating machines – is another outcome that seems to “come with the job.” In fact, however, a host of low-cost interventions exist which, if consistently implemented on all worksites, would substantially reduce the long-term impacts. Many are administrative in nature – such as rotating job assignments or storing materials close to their place of use. Others are “common sense,” like sharing the load when carrying heavy materials. In most cases, these sprain and strain disabilities can best be reduced through sustained efforts to revamp the habits of Laborers and their employers, and that is one approach of the Fund. Again, a wide variety of ergonomic resources are available on the LHSFNA website.
“As young men and women come into our trade,” says Sabitoni, “it’s up to those of us with more experience to press the importance of safety and health. Of course, older Laborers will always share their insights with new workers, but we accomplish this in a broad, consistent and systematic way through the work of our Health and Safety Fund. We’re confident that the studies of retired Laborers that will be done ten or twenty years from now will demonstrate the success of the Fund’s work.”
For more specific information on the Fund and its work, contact the Health Promotion or Occupational Safety and Health Divisions at 202-628-5465. The Functional Impairment study was conducted by Grace LeMasters and a team at the University of Cincinnati and Greater Cincinnati Occupational Health Center under a grant from NIOSH. It was published in Experimental Aging Research, 32: 227-242, 2006.