Ergonomics in Construction: A Case Study of Ergonomic Improvements in Concrete Chipping Operations

By Ben Freidenberg

For those of you that have ever used a chipping or pneumatic hammer, you know what a burden the thing is. It’s a heavy, mechanical, wild pogo stick that you have to somehow control. It is one of many tools used in construction that is heavy, cumbersome, and required to be used repeatedly in the most awkward of positions. After using a chipping hammer all day, a worker can strongly feel the strain it incurs on their body, with symptoms such as shoulder pain, lower back pain, joint pain, and the list goes on. It is one of the many tools responsible for the tens of thousands of musculoskeletal injuries reported by construction workers each year.

Imagine if this fundamental tool, used by thousands of workers for countless hours every day, were designed with the operator in mind, with an understanding of how the construction worker operates and interacts with their equipment. Through the understanding of basic ergonomic principles, one of the staple tools in an industrial engineer's toolkit, one construction firm is noticing the benefits of ergonomic design applied to construction equipment.

HGC Construction Co, a construction company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, is exploring the use of ergonomic construction equipment to aid in concrete demolition, and aims to reduce the number of work related injuries and increase productivity. The particular tool in use is a Patented Ergonomically Designed Machine, or P.A.M., developed by RNP Industries. The P.A.M. is a pneumatic support platform, which can connect with pneumatic hammers, breakers, rivet busters, hydro demolition lances, and many other tools.

HGC Construction has piloted the machine with amazing results in both efficiency and usability. After an initial test, HGC found the P.A.M. to be 10 times more efficient than a hand held chipping hammer. A single operator using a hand held chipping hammer chipped out eight square feet of concrete, two inches deep, in eight hours. A single operator using the P.A.M. chipped out 80 square feet in the same amount of time.

"With more practice running this machine, we expect even more production," said Robert Smyth, vice president of HGC Construction Co. "Most likely [production] to peak at 100 square feet per night."

In addition, as the P.A.M. theoretically does the work of eight men, the device essentially pays for itself, a price of $43,000, in just 21 days.

The usability of the P.A.M. is also something to be highlighted. Through the command of a video-game-like joystick, the worker can operate the P.A.M with virtually no strain on either the upper or lower body. The machine holds 100 percent the weight of the chipping hammer and absorbs 100 percent of the impact-rebound pressure.

"The strain on a man is minimal ... any child that can play a video game with a controller could run it," Smyth said.

During the pilot testing of the P.A.M on several construction projects, the morale and attitudes of the workers became more positive. "There was a lot of 'good feeling' about the new tech ... you could say the workers were whistling a happier tune," said Paul Haverbusch, safety director at HGC Construction Co.

The workers were aware and appreciative that the company was invested in their long-term wellbeing, and enabling them to do better, more efficient work. Many of the workers have been working with 45 pound, hand held chipping hammers for years, and they are all too familiar with the weight and stress the hammers put on the body.

"You have to grip the hammer very tightly, and as time passes, you begin to get an arthritic feeling in your hands," Paul said. "You feel stiff."

With the implementation of the P.A.M. machine, HGC hopes to prevent long term injuries to its workers while also increasing capability.

With the immense increase in operational efficiency in chipping concrete with the P.A.M, in addition to the minimal strain on the worker, HGC Construction Co. hopes to replace more of their conventional chipping hammers with the ergonomic P.A.M. machine. The company is optimistic about further improving the productivity of their concrete chipping operations, and most importantly, reducing the strain and injuries to their workers. The dawning future of the construction industry can only continue to improve in productivity and safety with the application of ergonomic concepts and design, and HGC Construction Co. is only a small testament to the potential improvements of industrial engineering and ergonomics in construction.