According to Safe Work Australia, one in five serious workplace injuries involve a tradesperson. In August 2014, Kyal and I were involved in National Tradies Health Month, a campaign run collaboratively by The Australian Physiotherapy Association and Steel Blue. Tradies Health is important to us on so many levels. Not only is Kyal, and alot of close friends and family tradespeople, but tradesmen significantly contribute to the Australian Workforce and Economy.
An injured tradie doesn't just mean one person off work; it can impact family, business and morale. I feel discussions need to be started in the workplace about how injuries can be prevented, and how we can contribute to a healthy and prosperous workforce. As a physiotherapist that also works within the construction industry, I feel I can help to get this message out.
From my own experience on site, it’s fair to say that a lot of my fellow tradies, old and young, are unaware of the importance of good health. Being able to perform at a high level is often taken for granted. There are so many risks associated with being a tradie and because we are encountering those risks on a day to day basis, its easy to fall into the trap of becoming complacent. As tradies we generally have a better appreciation after a near miss...
Furthermore, once health issues do arise, it’s pretty common in our industry to just shrug off problems and "let them sort themselves out.” Time plays a big part in this. A lot of tradies feel they are too busy to seek advice. Tradies simply need reminding that the treatment of small injuries early will prevent further issues, and will most likely save them time and money in the long run. From the business owners perspective, tradies are far more likely to work efficiently and productively if they are healthy.
Generally speaking, I don’t feel tradies have a great understanding of a physiotherapist’s role in prevention. Most people start thinking about seeing a physiotherapist once a physical injury or issue has been bothering them for a while. Tradies need to start being pro-active in thinking about prevention. An employer may want to think about a regular stretching regime during the “tool box meeting” or it might just start with reminding a fellow tradie about their lifting technique.
When treating tradespeople, the most common physical issues I see are back injuries, shoulder injuries and injuries involving a wound. In my experience, back and shoulder injuries are most commonly related to an incorrect lifting technique and are generally associated with muscle strain. From my experience working in orthopaedic fracture clinics, wound related injuries are generally caused by power tools and from rushing or becoming careless with safety procedures.
As with most things, education is definitely the key. Tradies need to be aware of what their body is telling them. It seems like common sense to a physiotherapist, but not everyone is aware that acute pain (whether it be minor pain or severe) is a warning from the body that something is not right - and that dealing with this early will prevent a chronic issue. There is definitely a culture amongst Tradies that "pushing on” and "getting on with the job" is the best way to overcome a physical alignment. It is often a chronic issue by the time a physiotherapist begins assessment and treatment. Tradies need to be aware that prevention and early treatment of a physical issue is most likely going to save them time (and most likely money) in the long run.
Although back pain and musculoskeletal injuries are huge issues facing tradie health, particularly from a physiotherapy perspective, I think the biggest issue is workplace attitudes regarding health. When tradies talk about work health and safety, it's usually associated with a discussion on how strict regulations are and how much insurances cost. Generally speaking, tradies are not talking about how to prevent injuries and maintain health. A shift in culture needs to occur whereby when someone mentions "health and safety" it sparks positive conversations relating to health. All it takes is one person in a workplace to remind fellow workers that guidelines, rules and procedures are in place to protect workers, not to "catch workers out" or make things difficult. Encourage people to be that positive influence in their workplace. It may simply be reminding a co-worker to "bend their knees when lifting." They will hopefully return the favor and slowly the culture in their workplace will shift.