A survey of 7,000 construction workers in Iowa found that over 70 percent had back pain and more than 40 percent had pain in their knees, hands, wrists, shoulders or neck. Many had lost work because of their pain. How did they get this way? Is pain just part of construction, or could this have been avoided?

Alternate description

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“As every Laborer knows, construction is a lot more strenuous than other types of work,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “Materials are often heavy and awkward, and our members do a lot of lifting and carrying.”Today, many options are available to move materials using powered equipment such as forklifts, small cranes or simple carts and dollies. Also, prior planning can eliminate a lot of manual handling injuries by employing just-in-time delivery methods and storing materials near where they will be used.

The LHSFNA has one of the best websites for information on “ergonomics and construction,” supplying hundreds of simple solutions that allow employees to “work smarter, not harder.” The Fund also publishes a 12-page pamphlet, A Laborers’ Guide to Preventing Sprains and Strains in Construction. Other resources include CPWR’s Construction Solutions Database and NIOSH’s Simple Solutions for Ergonomics in Construction.

Materials Handling Checklist

Pre-Job Planning is Essential

  • What materials will be used?
  • Which weigh over 50 pounds or are large and awkward (3ft wide)?
  • Which materials can be moved mechanically
    • Are the right carts/dollies readily available and in good condition?
  • Which have to be moved by hand?
    • For manual handling, which require more than one worker?
    • Do workers have handles or carrying tools to make it easier?

Materials Storage on Site

  • Can materials be ordered just-in-time to minimize storage?
  • Where will they be stored?
  • How will they be stored?
  • Can they be stored off the ground to minimize lifting?
  • Who will make sure they are delivered to the right place?

Moving Materials on Site

  • How will they be transported to their final use destination?
  • Will materials handling equipment be used to move materials?
  • Are clear and level pathways available so that carts and forklifts can operate?
  • How can it be ensured that materials are moved once and not multiple times?


  • Is housekeeping done on a daily basis?

At your worksite, the best way to start is to identify opportunities to improve the work. CPWR’s Construction Ergonomics Checklist will help you do just that. Also, ANSI’s Reduction of Musculoskeletal Disorders in Construction standard (A10.40) is a useful roadmap. Since the largest number of injuries is related to manual handling, start by looking closely at how materials are stored and moved on your worksite. Use the Materials Handling Checklist (sidebar) to identify ways to reduce risk.

“We know the work is hard, but it should not be disabling. It should not cause chronic pain and ruin work life or retirement,” says O’Sullivan. “Injuries and the resulting pain can be minimized by thinking about how work is done and how it can be done better. The input of experienced workers is essential. Together, our members, our leaders and management can change the culture of construction and prevent a lot of its pain and suffering.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Director.]

Phil’s Story

This video tell’s the story of one Laborer’s pain.