Construction physical ill health risks: Repetitive work
Frequently repeated tasks (such as plastering or rebar tying) can injure the upper limb areas of the body. Do not accept these injuries as an inevitable part of your work. This page tells you how to control these risks and why. More detailed information is available on the upper limb disorders (ULDs) page.
What you must do
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 says you must provide work equipment that is suitable for the task being done. This includes making sure that the equipment does not place undue strain on the user. Follow the Assess, Control and Review model. Pay particular attention to:
Identify and assess: Construction sites have many different pieces of equipment for many different tasks. Not all of these will present an MSD risk. Establish the significant risks/tasks by considering:
- Who – think about your employees. What tasks do they do and what tools do they use? Give particular consideration to anyone who is known to have an existing problem. Workers new to these tasks may need more time to get the necessary skills / adapt to the rate of work.
- What – estimate or assess likely risks from the tasks you are doing. Pay attention to tasks where using tools involves rapid or prolonged repetition, awkward / static postures and the application of significant force. The duration of these tasks is particularly important. This includes the length of time you are doing the task during a shift and how regularly you are doing this over consecutive days. Short, infrequent exposures are unlikely to create significant risks except where the task is very demanding. This is because your body has enough time to recover. When the duration is increased, the risk of injury also increases.
- Where – consider where the work is taking place. Certain situations can increase the strain on the upper limbs – in particular working in cold temperatures or using equipment that creates vibration.
The Assessment of Repetitive Tasks (ART) tool has been developed to help you identify higher risk tasks.
You will also need to consider any risks from manual handling loads that are linked to this work.
Where the risks are judged to be low, simple and inexpensive controls will suffice. For other tasks you may have to do more. Give priority to the greatest risks first.
Prevent: Think about eliminating or reducing repetitive strain risks where possible. Consider:
- offsite prefabrication or other ‘upstream’ changes
- using power tools instead of manual ones (eg a cordless rebar tier instead of pincers or ‘nips’) or manual tools with ratchet devices to reduce the number of movements needed
- changing sequences to make the work less awkward
- direct fastening instead of drilling and fixing above head height
- allowing adequate time for the task so you are not working beyond your natural capacity
- effectively controlling vibration risks
Control: Even if you minimise some of the risks this way, you may still do other work that can involve significant repetition. Control the risk by:
- Tools – select tools that are right for the work and the user. Minimise the amount of force needed to do the job. Consider lighter tools, tool design, trigger locks etc.
- Work area – think about the location and position of the work. Where possible, change the height, angle and position of the work to suit the person doing the task (eg using trestles to support materials instead of working on the ground);
- Work practices – make sure that the work rate is suitable for the task. Break up long periods of frequent repetition and static inactivity. Spread repetitions across both hands. Rest and rotate workers if needed.
- Environment – ensure sufficient lighting so that workers can clearly see what they are doing. Avoid working in cold temperatures if possible, otherwise provide the right personal protective equipment (PPE). Take care when selecting gloves. The wrong ones can lead to a poor sense of touch or grip and increase effort when gripping.
Train: Tell workers about the risks from repetitive tasks and how to use the controls properly.
Supervise: Ensure that controls are effective and properly used.
Maintain: Make sure equipment is properly maintained so the force needed to carry out the work does not increase.
Monitor: There is no requirement to carry out health surveillance. Currently no techniques exist for reliably detecting the early signs of ill health caused by repetitive tasks. Nevertheless, you can gain valuable information from less precise measures such as reporting, monitoring and investigating reported symptoms.
What you should know
Skilled construction and building trades are one of the occupations with the highest estimated prevalence of upper limb disorders. This is because some workers do tasks that are highly repetitive, often in awkward positions. Upper limb disorders (ULDs) affect the arms, from fingers to shoulder, and neck. They are often called repetitive strain injuries or 'RSI'. Symptoms include
- numbness or swelling
It is important to report these symptoms as soon as possible so they can be treated / managed appropriately. The controls can also be improved to reduce the likelihood of the problem recurring once you have recovered.