The knowledge, skill, and experience of masons distinguish this craft among all those in the construction trades. Masons acquire and refine their skills over many years, but often find that they are unable to practice their craft for as long as they would like because of the work's high physical toll.

Until recently, the industry tended to accept the physical wear and tear of masons as an inevitable part of the job; however, there are alternatives available that can prolong their careers. Doing so certainly has advantages for contractors who want to employ seasoned masons that have acquired their skills over decades, and for the masons, themselves, who would like to work within their trade without the need to retire prematurely due to the cumulative injuries resulting from their hard work.

Looking for answers

As part of a larger effort to reduce the risk of injuries and accidents in construction, the Center for the Protection of Workers' Rights (CPWR) is supporting research to promote equipment, materials, and work practices that can reduce the risk of sprains, strains, and more serious, disabling musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) to masons and tenders.

Success in this area would prolong the careers of these workers, providing them with longer lifetime earnings and increasing the available supply of skilled workers. Many of these changes also enhance productivity and result in cost savings for contractors.

MSDs among masonry workers are frequently the result of overexertion and repetitive activities to muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. Common types of injuries to the low back are muscle strains and disc herniations, while upper extremity injuries include carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist, tendonitis at the elbow and shoulder, and tears in the shoulder rotator cuff muscles.

There are several work factors contributing to these injuries:

  • Weight of concrete masonry units (CMUs) or brick
  • Lifting frequency
  • Height from which CMUs or brick are picked up
  • Height at which CMUs or brick are placed
  • Height of mortar stand
  • Distance of the CMUs or brick from the mason's body
  • Degree and frequency of twisting involved.

An initial step in our effort was to explore what currently exists in the field. As is the case with nearly every innovation in construction, many of the best ideas are developed on worksites. The challenge is to identify which of these innovations in equipment, materials, and work practices can be broadly used throughout the country in a way that preserves, or even enhances, the value of masonry construction.

To this end, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) organized a masonry stakeholder meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the spring of 2004. This meeting, co-sponsored by the CPWR, International Council of Employers/Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America, and Mason Contractors Association of America, brought together 15 masonry contractors, 12 masonry workers, 5 occupational health and safety researchers, 4 health and safety specialists, 3 contractor association representatives, 2 ergonomics consultants, and 2 representatives of state workers' compensation programs.

These men and women identified a wide range of innovative equipment, tools, materials, and work practices currently available and utilized that reduce the risk of injury among masons and tenders.

While there appeared to be a general agreement that many of these innovations were valuable, the participants also identified regional differences in the use of some innovations. Prior to promoting these innovations throughout the country, these regional differences needed to be confirmed and better understood.