In the construction industry, one of the most common ways to improve jobsite safety and health is to buy new equipment. That might include tools with integrated water or vacuum controls to reduce dust, quieter equipment to reduce noise, fall arrest systems or many other items. New equipment can also help prevent the sprains and strains (also known as musculoskeletal disorders or MSDs) that are so common in construction. These injuries are costly to workers in terms of physical pain and also have a financial impact due to days away from work. For employers, costs are felt in both project delays and increased workers’ compensation costs and claims.
“Sprains and strains caused by repetitive motions, prolonged work in awkward positions and excessive force are the most common injury in construction,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “To help prevent these injuries, employers should take steps to redesign job tasks when possible, which can sometimes lead to bringing in new equipment that allows workers to do the job more efficiently.”
However, while contractors would often prefer to buy new equipment, many can’t afford the investment. Small contractors in particular may struggle to afford buying new equipment, and research shows that 80 percent of construction contractors have less than 10 employees. Finding a way to help these small construction contractors subsidize the purchase of equipment might be a smart investment in worker safety and health.
Ohio is one of only two states that runs its own workers’ compensation system. In Ohio, workers’ compensation coverage must be purchased from the state. The state sets aside a portion of the premiums collected for its Safety Intervention Grants (SIG) program. This program helps contractors purchase equipment that is likely to reduce the risk of injury for workers. The SIG program makes money available to contractors in the form of matching grants. For 2020, both public and private employers were eligible for a 3-to-1 match up to $40,000, so for every $1 an employer contributed to safety equipment, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) would contribute $3.
The goal of the program is that these grants pay for themselves in reduced workers’ compensation claims in the future. To track that goal, contractors that receive these grants are required to report to Ohio BWC after one year on the outcome of the grant purchase. So does the program work? Does it really prevent injuries and pay for itself?
NIOSH’s new Center for Workers’ Compensation Studies wanted to find out. The Center, in conjunction with NIOSH researchers studying ergonomics, studied grants made to construction contractors between 2003 and 2016. The recently published results reviewed 153 grants and their final reports. Researchers calculated “risk-reduction scores” and did a cost-benefit analysis where possible. While the majority of grants (105) went to purchase a single piece of equipment, about one third (48) were used to purchase multiple pieces of equipment. [Researchers noted it was more difficult to tie safety improvements to purchases that included multiple pieces of equipment.]
The study’s results showed that certain pieces of equipment resulted in the largest injury risk reduction and were most cost effective. They included:
- Electrical cable pulling equipment
- Skid steer attachments for concrete breaking (hydraulic breakers)
- Concrete sawing equipment
- Man lifts (boom lifts)
- Trailers with hydraulic tilting/ramps
Electrical cable pulling systems had one of the highest risk reduction factors (71 percent). Articulating boom lifts also scored well by reducing risk for MSDs by 60 percent. Many other types of equipment purchases were also made, including: fall protection equipment, walk-behind laser screeds, drywall cutting systems and powered hand tools (e.g., for cutting and bending rebar). All of this equipment also showed significant benefits. Even a risk reduction of 25 to 30 percent – which almost all the tools that were studied achieved – represents a major reduction in injury risk for workers and would be a worthwhile investment for employers.
Helping small employers purchase equipment that reduces the risk of injury for workers appears to be a good investment for the Ohio BWC. Workers’ compensation insurers and state compensation funds could also benefit from implementing similar programs. In construction, where being a small employer often means having small profit margins, any program that makes equipment more affordable could have a big impact. Grant programs like the one run by the Ohio BWC have the potential to benefit thousands of workers and prevent thousands of injuries. That is an investment worth making.