ACC: “No need to beat yourself up each week”

Construction-related strains and sprains resulted in an average of 32 days off work per employee in 2020. Photos: EZRA MCDONALD/ACC.

Everybody knows a tradie with a sore back, injured shoulder, or crook knees. Many simply accept that working through sprains and strains comes with the territory.

But while soldiering on may seem like the best thing for the job, these injuries are having a significant impact on the construction industry.

“It’s a sad and problematic attitude in our industry,” says Ra Puriri, one of New Zealand’s oldest apprentice plumbers.

“There’s a completely different way to do construction work efficiently and well while protecting yourself and really taking care of your body, instead of just beating yourself up every week.”

Figures from ACC show that between 2017 and 2021, there were 6265 construction-related soft tissue injuries in the Bay of Plenty region, and almost 91,000 nationwide.

The cost of supporting people in the region with these injuries – commonly strains and sprains - totalled $22.6 million, while the nationwide cost was almost $400m.

In 2020 alone, ACC accepted 17,871 soft-tissue injury claims from the trades sector.

Charitable trust Construction Health and Safety estimates these claims resulted in a total of 578,562 days off work, at an average of 32 days per claim.

It estimates this disruption prevented the development of 338 two-bedroom houses, as well as work on one million square metres of long run roofing, two million sqm of scaffolding, and 270,000 sqm of painting.

CHASNZ and ACC have now teamed up to launch the Work Should Not Hurt programme, which aims to change attitudes and get people on the tools working smarter, not harder.

The programme is part of ACC’s $3.9million investment in CHASNZ over two years, and aims to ensure tradespeople can enjoy long, pain-free careers that are not cut short by injury.

Construction Health and Safety NZ programme manager Chris Polaczuk.

“There are many things tradies and their companies can do to prevent injuries now, but we need a long-term commitment to prevent the wear and tear injuries that many people end up with at the end of their careers,” says CHASNZ programme manager and ergonomist Chris Polaczuk.

“At a time of unprecedented stress and demand in the industry, we have to help tradies to look after their bodies as well as their minds.”

ACC’s investment has allowed Polaczuk to develop a practical ergonomics programme for the construction industry.

This includes educational material for apprentices, easy-to-understand resources and guides, equipment trials, ‘Toolbox Talks’ workshops, and a customised website for major trades to understand their injury data.

Polaczuk says reducing expectations of work-related injuries will be crucial to retain the record numbers of women and young people entering the industry.

Data shows the most common construction-related injuries are lower back, shoulder, and knee injuries.

Roofers often have neck problems, while plumbers commonly struggle with wrist injuries.

ACC injury prevention leader James Whitaker.

ACC injury prevention leader James Whitaker says most of these injuries are preventable.

“Specific things tradespeople can do to reduce injuries include reducing working overhead, getting work up off the ground, finding smarter ways of moving heavy stuff, having good planning and communication, and keeping healthy and managing stress,” says Whitaker.

“Our research shows that 90 per cent of all injuries are predictable and therefore preventable. The trades are no different.”

Whitaker says injuries can impact friends, family, and workmates. Preventing them can benefit things like productivity, staff retention and wellbeing, and career progression.

He says taking steps to assess and avoid risk may add a couple of minutes to a work task, but it could prevent months off work.

CHASNZ estimates strains and sprains in the construction industry resulted in 338 two-bedroom homes not being built in New Zealand in 2020.

It’s advice 64-year-old Puriri wishes he followed before hurting his knee while lifting a tank on loose gravel in early 2020.

The injury meant Puriri has been unable to complete his apprenticeship, and he is passionate about helping others avoid the same mistake.

“It’s thinking a little differently and going ‘OK, what should I do?’

“It can relate to everything a construction worker does all day long.”

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