U.S. Department of Labor
Process: Hot Work
Hazard: Improper Body Positioning
Improper body positioning is considered the most frequent cause of injuries to workers routinely performing hot work.
Hot work is required in nearly every phase of new ship construction, repair, or overhaul. With the exception of shop work, and work done on outdoor platens, the shape of the hull most often defines the work environment. This circumstance frequently requires that workers place themselves in unusual body positions, often for extended periods of time. Welders, for example, may find themselves in spaces or inner bottoms where they must lie on their backs with extended arms and use a mirror to view the working area. Additionally, many tight and confined spaces are very difficult to access and exit, requiring workers to bend, stoop, crawl, and navigate obstacles such as piping, temporary wiring, ventilation equipment, and machinery.
Several of the shipyards that participated in the development of this material indicated that the average age of the workers in their yards is around forty- five years old. The fact that the work force is getting older must be considered a contributing factor in the frequency and severity of back and other injuries associated with improper body positioning. As we get older we are all subject to a cumulative degeneration process and loss of flexibility that increases our vulnerability to these types of injuries. In recognition of this problem, one large shipyard has experimented with a pre-shift exercise and stretching program to improve workers flexibility. The exercise program named, “Fit For Work”, was designed by health care professionals and could be completed in about eight minutes at the start of the work shift. There was an encouraging reduction in injuries within the group of employees participating in the program.
Traditional prevention techniques, such as work station layout or using adjustable work tables to position work, can be used in shop or landside work areas. However, these prevention methods are usually not feasible on board a vessel. So what can be done?
One Shipyard, alarmed by an increase in the number of back injuries, instituted “back schools” for at risk workers and saw an almost immediate twenty-five percent reduction in back injuries. The “back schools” were designed by shipyard medical and safety personnel working with a physical therapy provider. The training is customized for each trade and the curriculum includes basic instruction in anatomy, and occupational and non-occupational risk factors associated with improper body positioning. Hands-on demonstrations and worker participation enhances interest in the program. Training aids which included video presentations were also developed at the shipyard. The training material depicts the types of work practices that are actually performed by the workers receiving the training.
Planning jobs to eliminate or minimize the need for work to be performed in awkward positions is the best prevention for these types of injuries. When awkward positioning cannot be avoided, allowing periodic mini-breaks for stretching, and or rotating workers, will allow for the periodic recovery needed to reduce the possibility of injury. Additionally, workers should periodically reposition themselves when working in tight areas that require awkward positioning.
While personal protective equipment options for helping to prevent these types of injuries are limited, such things as gloves designed to reduce tight static gripping, knee pads to relieve contact stress, and light weight welding hoods and hard hats that reduce neck strain are available.
As with other types of soft tissue injuries, early reporting of symptoms such as neck or back pain is encouraged. Early reporting and intervention can often make the difference between a relatively short treatment and recovery period and a long term or permanent disability. Worker awareness and training are essential tools for the prevention of injuries resulting from improper body positioning and body mechanics. The examples on the following pages illustrate some of the more frequent causes of these types of injuries and suggest methods to prevent them.