Plasterboard manual handling aids and factors helping and hindering the practicability of their application (HSE research report)
Handling and installing plasterboard represents a moderate to high level of musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk. This is predominantly due to the weight and unwieldy nature of the plasterboard. The handling and installation tasks are highly repetitive and awkward postures (e.g. bent forward, trunk twisting and reaching with the hands above shoulder height) can be adopted. For example, when installing plasterboard on ceilings and walls, when lifting plasterboard up onto scaffolding and when measuring and cutting it. Fixing plasterboard to the ceiling exposes individuals to a higher MSD risk compared to fixing to walls. This is due to the static nature of the activity when holding the plasterboard in position overhead and the repetitive hammering or use of a power drill above shoulder height with the neck hyper-extended. Individuals will be most at risk from lower back injury due to the frequent handling of the plasterboard. The risk of neck injury is likely to be increased due to the hyperextension required when installing plasterboards to ceilings. The shoulders and upper limbs are also likely to be at an increased risk of developing a vii MSD, due to the repetitive use of power tools, particularly at or above shoulder height. The observed manual handling aids (ceiling lift and adjustable support prop) reduce the risk of MSD associated with installing ceilings from high to moderate/low risk.
There is clear potential for risk of musculoskeletal injury in moving and handling panel products such as plasterboard. Taking sensible precautions may reduce these risks. It is impossible to avoid all manual-handling operations in the construction industry. This is particularly relevant to the installation of plasterboard, which relies heavily on manual handling activities. No single universal solution exists to improve risk control, but a number of different strategies may usefully be implemented to suit differing scenarios. The following recommendations cover measures that employers and workers should consider to control risk of musculoskeletal injury when handling and installing plasterboard:
Provide mechanical assistance: There are steps the industry can take to avoid or reduce the amount of manual handling to control risk of injury. A variety of handling aids and devices exist that will reduce the amount of manual handling workers must perform. For example, this study has observed several practicable solutions designed to assist workers installing plasterboard onto ceilings. However, caution is advised when introducing any new handling aids into the work environment, as operators must be trained properly in their use. The introduction of handling aids needs to be assessed and monitored, to ensure that new risks are not introduced. It is recommended that equipment first be hired for a trial period to determine whether it is suitable for individual company and user requirements.
Provide safe systems of work: Safe systems of work detail the procedures to be followed during the construction phase, including the need to consider manual handling. It is vital to consult those employees that carry out the work, or with detailed knowledge of the activity, so that the system of work produced is effective and practical as well as safe. Involving employees in the process helps them to understand why this level of control has to be established and maintained. Where risks of an extreme nature are involved, the safe system of work may be in the form of a ‘passport’ schemes, such as the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) or the Contractors Health and Safety Scheme (CHAS). This should mean that all members of staff have a clear understanding of the safe systems of work. Training is vital to ensure a clear understanding of the task, the system, and all its associated requirements. All relevant staff must clearly understand the system of work. It is equally important that it is effectively communicated to others, such as, sub-contractors, who may be involved periodically. However, all safe systems of work need to be monitored regularly to ensure that they are fully observed and effective, and appropriate supervision is critical.
Change the way dry lining operatives are paid: Dry lining operatives are currently paid on a piece rate system, generally per metre square of plasterboard they install. On average around 40 boards can be fitted per shift (50-100 m2) per team of plasterers. This workload is not imposed upon them, as the task is self-paced, however it is in their interests to put up as many boards as possible, so that they take home more money. These working patterns may not allow sufficient recovery time after such intensive manual work. This can increase risk of injury in the workforce, as the effects of intense manual labour lead to cumulative trauma and increase “wear and tear”. The use of a piece rate pay system may actively encourage workers to miss breaks or cut corners. This may also discourage workers from using manual-handling aids, particularly if they perceive this to make their work slower than installing boards manually. This is particularly relevant given that much of the workforce is unaware of the impact of cumulative exposure to MSD risk factors on their physical well-being.
Reduce dimensions of board: Reducing the dimensions of plasterboard will improve its handling characteristics, however the natural tendency for workers to carry several such smaller boards at a time is likely to counteract any benefit, unless strictly controlled. It may be possible to reduce the board size without compromising quality of the finish, but feedback suggests that there is greater time and cost associated with having to tape and joint more if smaller boards are used. Furthermore, this may increase the frequency of manual handling operations if other changes to the task are not implemented. There may also be cultural factors, e.g. resistance to change, to consider when reducing board size.
Reduce weight of loads: Reducing weight of the plasterboard will further improve its handling characteristics. Although many of the boards handled can be easily lifted either alone or in teams, handling becomes problematic when: loads are handled above head height; there are limited opportunities for rest after handling heavier loads and; inappropriate/ poor handling techniques are adopted and operators have not had appropriate training.
Label loads: Items often do not have weights indicated on them; therefore workers may not be able to perform a dynamic risk assessment (i.e. suitable to the prevailing conditions). Items should be labelled appropriately, clearly identifying the product and its weight (both individual board and pallet weight). It may also be possible to differentiate load weights that are suitable for individual lifts from those where team lifts are required. This will help across the supply chain, particularly with assessing risk to employees involved in handling.
Team handling of plasterboard: Team handling is an effective way of reducing the physical burden of manual handling. The results of the MAC assessment suggest that significant risk reductions can be made, as load weights less than 35kg would present a low level of injury risk, and loads of 35-50kg would present a moderate level of MSD injury risk when two people are lifting the load. (It is important to note that the capacity of a two-person lift is less than the sum of their combined lifting capacity). Any boards weighing more than 50kg will present a high level of MSD injury risk, even if handled by two individuals. It should be noted that it is common practice to carry boards in pairs, face to face, so even lighter boards may give rise to high levels of risk in these circumstances.
Provide training in manual handling for all workers: This should be as a matter of immediate concern for construction sites where large quantities of plasterboard are handled. Workers should be trained in handling techniques, both for individual and team lifts. The training should be tailored to the needs of the worker, covering the specific manual handling tasks they will encounter, the planning of lifts and the use of handing aids appropriate to their environment. Training should cover communication to ensure a coordinated approach to team handling, especially considering the often-frenetic nature of the work environment. This is particularly relevant where part-time or agency workers are assigned to heavy manual handling tasks (e.g. loading out), as these workers are not part of the core workforce. Due to the insidious nature of many musculoskeletal disorders it is quite possible that operators are suffering accumulative damage to their musculoskeletal system without feeling symptoms and so without being aware of the risk. This would be partially rectified through the provision of training.
Increase task variety: Where possible, avoid having workers perform the same task for the duration of the day by rotating teams and individuals. Workers should rotate to a job with different risk factors after performing high-risk operations, as this will provide recovery time. Regular short breaks in work are a better means of avoiding fatigue compared to infrequent longer breaks and, where possible, a flexible approach to timing of work breaks should be adopted. Provided the tasks involved are sufficiently different in character, job rotation can also be effective in avoiding the onset of fatigue as a result of prolonged use of the same muscle groups.
Improve communication between stakeholders: Effective communication and sharing of information within the industry including; architects, quantity surveyors, product suppliers and site managers may help to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury from manual handling as key industry stakeholders share information on good practice or successful interventions in reducing the risk of manual handling with others in the industry.
For more information visit the HSE web page: http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr812.pdf
Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.