Fix My Job

Physically Demanding Work

When your job has you toting barges and lifting bales, you might ask yourself: How much can a body take?

When your job has you toting barges and lifting bales, you might ask yourself: How much can a body take?

It’s a good question. The American workplace is full of difficult, strenuous tasks. And while workers often take pride in their ability to work hard, there are times when the physical demands of a job are greater than two arms and two legs can bear...and this can be especially true for the injured body, the aging body, and the pregnant body.

In 2011, private industry employers reported over 2.8 million nonfatal work-related injuries and over 4,600 fatal injuries. (It’s likely that these statistics understate the problem, as many employers underreport workplace injuries and illnesses.)

When we think “physically demanding,” we’re usually thinking about heavy lifting and hard driving. And indeed, operating heavy machinery, driving forklifts, and working in the fields can be some of the most difficult and dangerous jobs around. But there are more subtle forms of hard work that can also affect health: standing for long periods of time, engaging in repetitive manual tasks (ringing up groceries, typing, sewing), or the strenuous work of patient care in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes.

What to do if the physical demands of your work are too great?

The first thing to remember is to take care of yourself!

If the physical tasks of your job are becoming overwhelming, talk with those working around you. Your co-workers might be feeling the same crunch you are, and combining your voices makes it harder for management to ignore your concerns. (Plus, U.S. labor law offers protection to two or more private-sector employees who are trying to address workplace issues.)

If you are injured, seek medical advice and treatment. Of course, doctors and therapies aren’t cheap. Luckily, many work-related injuries are covered by workers’ compensation, or “workman’s comp.” Check here to see if you are covered – if you are, then your medical, disability leave, and some rehab costs should be paid by your employer’s insurance policy. If you are not covered by workers’ comp, and you are injured on the job, you should talk to an attorney.

If your work is being made more strenuous because of faulty or broken equipment, check Fix My Job for Old, Broken, Unsafe Equipment.

If repetitive tasks are causing muscular or joint pain, there might be things you and your employer can do to help. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has eTools, organized by profession, to help avoid musculoskeletal disorders.

If you’ve been on your feet too long, find ways to grab quick, sit-down breaks.

If any of the above is true, you will probably have to talk to your employerto get some relief. Your boss might not realize there’s a problem. But any reasonable boss will see that the company is responsible for a safe and healthy workplace; that it is in the company’s interest to match each employee with appropriate physical tasks; that through equipment, training, and office set-up, they can reduce the risk of repetitive motion injuries; and that workplace injuries end up being costly for both employee and employer.

Of course, not all bosses are reasonable. They might be more willing to fire you than address your concerns. Which is why you should: a) document the physical nature of your work, and your aches and pains; b) talk to your boss’s boss or the HR department where appropriate; and c) strategize with your fellow employees on how to ease the pain in your workplace.

Useful Links

Government agency: OSHA on Ergonomics (Ergonomics is the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population.)

Article: Workers’ Compensation Frequently Asked Questions from NOLO.com

Blog: The Workers Injury Blog includes “What To Do If You Are Injured on the Job”

So keep an eye out for signs of hidden musculoskeletal injuries that occur over time.

Symptoms, according to The Compliance Resource Center, might include:

  • Painful joints,
  • Pain, tingling, or numbness in the hands or feet,
  • Shooting or stabbing pains in the arms or legs,
  • Swelling or inflammation,
  • Burning sensation,
  • Pain in wrists, shoulders, forearms, or knees,
  • Fingers or toes turning white,
  • Back or neck pain, and
  • Stiffness.