Ergonomics Consultant | Sydney & Illawarra

Working Men Are Hurting | Ergonomics & Chronic Pain

26 Apr 2016 Katrina James

Working men are hurting. Their pain does not have a voice.

Injuries that happen at work often result in long term chronic pain. Pain breaks individuals, breaks their families and lessens their ability to remain connected to community.

These are our hard working men in mining, construction, manufacturing, transport and agricultural workplaces.

At the impressionable age of 19, I entered the nursing profession. Shifts in acute care saw me caring for men who had suffered physical trauma at work, and from car and motorbike accidents. A lot was going on in the arena of public road safety at the time. Drink driving limits and compulsory seat belt wearing were being introduced. Not much was going on in the world of work safety.

This led me to a career in nursing on manufacturing sites. Here I felt I could make a difference. However, the surprise was the number of back and shoulder injuries. These injuries didn’t draw blood, and so didn’t draw a lot of attention. Workers were castigated for the resultant time off work!

I observed the impact of long term chronic pain. An acute minor back injury will “get better”. A major back injury results in long term management. In witnessing the pain and suffering of these, I realised it mattered to me. Guiding men through the journey of change to lifestyle and constant pain has left a mark on me. Men don’t feel worthwhile when they are unable to contribute to workplace and community. Relationships with their families suffer.

One of the deeper insights I gained is that those with a more positive outlook on life manage better. With medical support and a positive outlook, people cope. This is well established by research. However the ongoing personal impact of the condition can become masked.

I would like to tell you about John’s story:

I recall John, an engineer, managing a maintenance workshop. John had suffered a back injury 10 years previously “on the tools”. He was doing a particularly heavy job, pulling a trolley weighing nearly 200kgs. Due to his education, John was able to attain a supervisory role after his injury. He then then moved to a management role that kept him off the tools and helped him “manage” his injury.

However, he was quietly suffering – moodiness, cigarette smoking and use of painkillers were sustaining his day to day life. The pain got the better of him and depression set in, but still nobody at work knew. I was on site with John one day, carrying out a team inspection. When we completed the job, I realised John was missing. He hadn’t stayed with the group and he hadn’t signed out of the area. John was in such a depressed state he had wandered off and lost sense of what was happening in that moment of time.

Once he was located, I was driven to have a real conversation with John. He revealed all was not well. The back injury was the root cause. He admitted to having feelings of despair. This was due to unrelenting pain, reduced function and the anguish of not being the man he ‘ought to be’. After our conversation, John sought medical help and took time off work to care for himself.

Since then John went on to study a masters in safety. He is now a national safety leader with an acute eye for those events that might affect men at work.

More recently he had surgery as a last resort to reduce the pain and suffering. You see, chronic back pain does not just “go away”.

Back in the workshop I coached John and the team in some basic ergonomics. John agreed the workshop area required some changes – he realised he didn’t want others to suffer the way he did.

The trolley that caused Johns injury was redesigned with a better handle, so the person’s back wasn’t twisted while the trolley was being used.

Brake beams under a train wagon weighed 80kg. Men were standing alone in pits, lifting 80kg over their head. A lifting jig was designed so workers no longer had to risk back and shoulder injury. This cost $3,000. John’s medical bill alone cost about $100,000.

The team were inspired. They implemented many solutions themselves. It had an impact on the way they organised their work. The workshop was tidied, equipment re-designed and work turned over more quickly. This instilled a change in their daily work practice.

To this day, fifteen years on, the team have not had another serious injury. They were motivated by the lead John took, and by being included in the decisions.

As an ergonomist I want you to look past the statistics. Whether you are a business owner, manager, engineer or administrator, have the conversations in your business that give people a voice. You may find it revealing.

Check that your working men aren’t hurting.

(All names have been changed)

Contact Katrina