They say youth is wasted on the young, a maxim that rings true when it comes to safety, but also to the physical demands of a carpenter’s day-to-day routines and their health consequences. The strength and sense of invulnerability that come with youth lead, with alarming consistency, to carelessness, complacency, and excessive risk-taking that over the years catches up with you.
No longer a spring chicken myself, trust me when I tell you that I know whereof I speak. If you’ve been reading my recent columns, you know that despite efforts to declutter before we moved, my wife and I still ended up shipping more stuff than we should have. Lately, as we’ve selectively unpacked the sea of boxes that occupy about half the basement in our newly remodeled home, two things have caught my attention: one, those labels we hastily scribbled on the boxes when we packed them aren’t nearly as helpful at identifying the contents as we thought they would be; and two, lifting heavy, bulky boxes all day is hard work. My back is killing me.
Beginning when I was 21, I progressed from laborer to carpenter to lead carpenter to desk-jockey-with-a-tool-belt. It was a career path typical of many remodelers, and over a period of about 20 years, I took a few dozen stitches and hurt my back in one fall. But I managed to avoid catastrophic injuries—miraculously, in retrospect, considering all of the exposure I had to rapidly spinning blades, unstable excavations, large pieces of mobile heavy equipment, and other common jobsite hazards. A few of my colleagues were not so lucky, including one who amputated his thumb with a circular saw and another who shattered his jaw in a tablesaw kickback incident.
But I now realize, these many years later, that none of us escaped the muscle pulls and ligament strains, repetitive motion injuries, and all manner of incremental but still debilitating physical traumas that, although mostly unnoticed when you’re twenty-something, over time become ever-more-insistent reminders of youthful folly. Some of these small indignities are truly insidious. For example, all of the bending and stooping and crouching required on the jobsite tends to over-contract frontside muscles at the expense of backside muscles. This leads to poor posture and declining flexibility that affects not just field workers, but follows those of us who transitioned to desk jobs, where sitting hunched over all day exacerbates the imbalance.
Forewarned is Forearmed
If you recognize yourself in any of this, now would be a good time to change your behavior. Carpenters can start with the way they manage tools. Carry just what you need each day and store the rest. Use tool belt suspenders or a tool vest to distribute the weight, and make sure tool storage boxes aren’t so heavy that you struggle to lift them in and out of the truck. The crew who worked on my house left most tools in a walk-in trailer parked just outside the house.
On the jobsite, brute strength is often the fastest way to get something done, but it’s not the only way and often not the smartest way. Using leverage or asking for help are preferable to busting a gut. And for work like installing hardwood flooring that has you bending over repeatedly all day long, take a short break every 45 minutes or so to stretch and realign your spine and give your knees a rest. Speaking of knees, padding helps. Both the electrician and plumber working at my house scoffed at knee pads, but used a rubber mat instead. Whatever works.
If you employ carpenters, I think you have a responsibility to help them protect their physical health. In fact, it’s in your self-interest, because a healthy crew is more productive with fewer injury claims and less absenteeism. You might even consider hiring a trainer to establish an exercise program for your production team. There’s also daily group exercise, which for decades has been a successful part of the Japanese practice of kaizen, or “constant improvement,” for both blue- and white-collar workers.
They say that wisdom is wasted on the old, so trust me on this while it still matters: Take care of your body now, and it will take care of you later.
As for your financial health, it’s likely in worse shape than your knees, but that’s a topic for another time.