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Muscling in on workplace injuries

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When it comes to musculoskeletal injuries, prevention is better – and much easier – than the cure.

Gabrielle Chariton


Contributor to Housing

You trip over a carelessly placed power cord and pull a muscle as you struggle to keep your balance. Or you lift a box of floor tiles, and a sharp pain shoots through your lower back.

Do these scenarios sound familiar? They're examples of how musculoskeletal injuries (MSI) can occur on worksites. Thanks to the physical nature of building work, MSIs are an all-too-common reality for builders and apprentices across Australia. According to Tony Lopez, HIA assistant director – OH&S, policy and lobbying, the leading causes of MSIs on building sites are incorrect or hazardous manual handling. This covers heavy lifting, moving objects, using hand tools, operating machinery and equipment, and slips, trips, and falls. 

Musculoskeletal injuries affect the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons or other connective tissue. Think strains, sprains, tendonitis, slipped discs, rotator cuff tears: all painful conditions. Some will heal with time and therapy; some will develop into lifelong chronic conditions known as musculoskeletal disorders.

There's also the very real risk that an MSI is debilitating enough to take you off the tools for weeks or months – or out of the housing industry altogether. In the five years to 2019, WorkSafe took more than 6200 injury claims made by construction workers for MSIs. Around 60 per cent of those workers needed more than four weeks off work. 'An MSI can take a long time to heal. If you do something serious, it can potentially have an immediate and long-term impact on your career,' says Russell Holtham, general manager operations HIA Apprentices.

The good news? These types of injuries are easily preventable with foresight and appropriate planning. Onsite risks can be mitigated by training workers in the correct techniques, maintaining high safety standards and keeping your site hazard-free. 

Pay attention

'Most incidents will be that one moment of inattention,' Russell says. 'Instead of stopping and thinking about doing the job, you just go and do it. You end up reaching over for that next piece of timber, and maybe your body position isn't quite correct and the next thing you could have a long-term injury. It's as simple as that. It's about awareness and paying attention to what you're doing.'

Warm up and work ready

This is important for apprentices and old-hands alike. You wouldn't lift 100kg straight off the bat at the gym, so why do it onsite? Before work begins, warm up, stretch, and get your body ready for the physical demands of the day. Regular exercise and strength work can also protect the body from sustaining injuries. Maintaining core strength, in particular, can be an effective personal prevention strategy. 


Avoid injury by always using the appropriate lifting and manual handling techniques. Consider using trolleys or wheelbarrows to move items around the site. Use lifting aids, such as cranes or hoists for awkward, heavy or repetitive lifts.

Your site

Both Tony and Russell stress the importance of keeping the site clean and tidy to reduce the risk of slips, trips and falls. Be vigilant about keeping the ground clear of electrical leads, sawdust and sand, cleaning up spills and rubbish, and ensuring any hazards are clearly marked. 

'Make sure your sites are clean and tidy. The little bit of time it takes to do that can save a lot of pain down the track from somebody having an incident or not being at work,' Russell says. 


Management of your musculoskeletal injury

The biggest problem with MSIs is that they can take weeks or months to heal or can, without proper rest, develop into chronic pain. Over time, you may also experience fatigue, reduced stamina, joint or muscle stiffness, or mental factors such as brain fog or anxiety resulting from your injury. All these things can make most tasks on a building site difficult. 

'Having a musculoskeletal injury does have a massive impact on people's ability to work. This would be compounded even more for people working in the building and construction area,' says Ornella Clavisi, general manager of consumer services at Musculoskeletal Australia (MSK). 

If you're injured, your first port of call will be your GP, who will refer you to the relevant specialists. But along with medical attention, other management strategies can help you maintain your quality of life and keep you smiling as your body heals. 


Managing pain safely 

Ornella says one of the biggest complicating factors – particularly for builders who may be required to operate machinery or drive between sites – is dealing with the side effects of pain medications, such as drowsiness. 

'There are pain management strategies that won't affect your work,' Ornella says. 'These include gentle exercise, applying heat and cold, stretching, massage, splints, braces and aids, or other equipment.' Finding what works for you may take a bit of trial and error, but you'll be able to build up a toolbox of different strategies over time. MSK has published a pain management booklet containing valuable tips in this area (see text box). 

Managing your mental health

If dealing with your injury has left you feeling low, one of the most helpful things you can do is get back on the job site. 
'There's lots of evidence to say that getting back to work is good for people's physical and mental health. Working gives you self-worth. It helps you be financially independent and feel productive, so there are many benefits,' Ornella says. 'Of course, this needs to be done slowly to ensure your body can cope with that additional load.' 

If you're on a worker's compensation claim, your treating doctor must approve this, and a Return to Work Plan needs to be developed and followed.

Modifications to your work environment

When you get back to work, you may not be able to operate at your pre-injury capacity. So what can be done? An occupational therapist or physiotherapist can advise you on new ways to do your work tasks or make suggestions around special equipment. They can also aid to protect your injury and help you get through the workday more comfortably. 

Ornella suggests asking your employer about taking regular rest breaks during the day. 'Early starts may be challenging for builders suffering from fatigue, and perhaps that's something you could negotiate with your employer about as well,' 
she adds.

Stay active and healthy

'Regular exercise can help reduce symptoms such as pain and stiffness and improve your joint mobility and strength. It will also give you more energy, help you sleep better, and improve your mood and general health. All of this will help you manage at work,' Ornella says. 'This is particularly important for builders because of the physicality within your job.' 

Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated will also help you maintain your energy levels, improve overall wellbeing, and support your body's natural healing processes. 


Top tips: Preventing injuries on site

Use trolleys, wheelbarrows, cranes, material hoists and forklifts to move materials
Ensure all workers use correct lifting techniques – keep back straight, bend knees, get close to the load, no lifting above shoulder height
Reduce workers' exposure to repetitive tasks or work that requires significant force
Ensure pathways, access and egress are level, dry and free from mud to prevent trips and falls
Install ramps across uneven ground
Keep the site clean and tidy. 
For more information regarding onsite safety, safe manual handling, and preventing slips, trips and falls, find fact sheets prepared by HIA's technical team at: 

Post-injury management and support
For information on your rights when returning to work with a musculoskeletal condition:
For pain management tips and strategies, check out ‘Managing Your Pain: An A–Z Guide’: 
MSK National Helpline offers advice and support: 1800 263 265 (weekdays) or email 
A new workplace tool, ‘Work Wise’, will soon be available from MSK: check the website for details: www.msk.org.au