By Carol J. Alexander

Tom Kearney, 58, of Indiana, pushed through the pain and continued his career as a lead carpenter for 35 years. He wasn’t injured, in the sense that he fell, was hit, or even felt that defining twinge while lifting. He just had a backache—all the time.

“After a while,” Kearney said, “ it got to be that I was unable to stand still without hurting.”

When he no longer wanted to go to church with his family or hold his daughter, because both required standing, Kearney’s wife recommended he see a chiropractor.

“You know the adage you ‘work through the pain’?” he said. “You take more aspirin, not go to the doctor. That’s a sign of weakness for a man.”

But when a few years of pain turned into 20, and his wife’s recommendation turned into constant reminders, he went.

“I honestly felt my back pain wasn’t work related because I couldn’t pin it to one particular incident,” he said, “but the chiropractor kept focusing on my job, asking me all kinds of questions.”

She finally concluded that years of wearing an out-of-balance tool belt led to one hip being pushed forward, causing misalignments of the spine that pinched nerves. The pinched nerves caused not just back pain but poor circulation and cramps in his legs and feet.

“Equipment belts can get heavy,” said Nathaniel Cooley, DPT with Valley Health in Winchester, Virginia. And he knows. Dr. Cooley worked in the residential building industry throughout his high school and college years. Since beginning his career as a doctor of physical therapy, he’s treated many construction workers.

“Back and shoulder pain caused by overuse are the top complaints I see among construction workers,” he said. But there are ways to both prevent and treat that pain.

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Cooley believes construction work ranks up there with professional athletics as one of the most physically demanding jobs. He said that staying healthy and fit is as imperative to avoiding injury as regular maintenance is for heavy machinery.  

Rob Leonard is a personal trainer, cyclist, long-distance runner, and has worked in the construction industry for 40 years. Fortunately, he’s also the director of Build Smart Institute (BSI), a trade school in Roanoke, Virginia. 

All of BSI’s core students, typically high schoolers, receive instruction on ergonomics, lifting techniques, exercise, and eating a whole-foods diet, according to Leonard. “But that’s because it’s a personal passion of mine,” he said. “I can’t say if other schools are offering this type of training. It goes against the industry’s culture.”

Leonard describes a culture where young laborers are “thrown to the wolves,” trained by those who weren’t properly trained themselves, and where production supersedes everything. “Often, even over safety,” he said, “until something happens, then there’s a panic.”

In this macho culture where the young are invincible, Leonard said that nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle is hit or miss. Yet, even a relatively healthy person can injure tight muscles. That’s where regular exercise comes in.

Cooley recommends a daily exercise routine for construction workers that keeps their core, back, shoulder, hip, and leg muscles toned and strong. Keeping the muscles in good condition helps to prevent injury.


Even if you’re healthy, eat right, and exercise, carpenters who don’t pay attention to how they perform daily tasks still get injured. “The most important thing,” said Cooley, “is to be mindful of the position you’re in when working.” For example, always follow these key lifting techniques:

• Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.

• Squat down, don’t bend.

• Face the load, keeping your back straight.

• Slowly lift with your legs.

• Hold the load close to your body.

• Don’t twist your spine.

• Set it down with the same controlled motion.

A light load can cause injury, too, when repeatedly lifted with a twisting motion, as often is done when unloading lumber or shingles. And, working in the same position for extended periods of time, like leaning over a task, or working overhead, can cause problems, too. For this reason, both Cooley and Leonard recommend taking breaks and alternating responsibilities.

“Administrative control is part of the equation,” said Leonard. That’s where the supervisor moves people from one job to the other to prevent repetitive injury. People work in teams, trading off physically demanding or repetitive tasks with more auxiliary roles. This method increases the staying power and wellness of each worker. 


Once educated, Kearney didn’t just equalize the weight of his tool belt, he bought a new one. “I bought a lighter, nylon belt,” he said, “with shoulder straps to take some of the weight off my hips.” 

Choosing ergonomically designed tools and personal protective equipment (PPE) is another way to prevent injury on the job. According to Leonard, students at Build Smart Institute learn to select the proper tool for the task, choose the right footwear, and more.

The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) recommends construction workers wear equipment to protect their eyes/face, head, feet, hands, and hearing. A few more considerations include:

• Use protective gloves appropriate for the job—leather to protect against cuts, splinters, or burns; canvas for dirt or abrasions; insulated rubber to protect from electrical shock; and chemical resistant for handling corrosive materials.

• Wear respiratory protective equipment when working in areas of dust and fumes.

• Use fall protection devices when working at heights greater than six feet.

• Wear footwear with slip- and puncture-resistant soles and safety toes to prevent crush injuries.

• Use knee pads when working on your knees.

• Wear a lumbar binder when lifting heavy loads.

Tom Kearney has a college degree in residential construction and said he learned injury prevention techniques as part of his training. He maintains his weight, jogs, and plays racquetball regularly. 

“I just always thought that if I were going to get hurt, the real risk was from falling,” Kearney said. His chiropractor showed him otherwise. And, in addition to changing his tool belt, she prescribed muscle treatments and an exercise routine.

Going forward, he doesn’t just watch his step; he watches how he moves.