Pain Doesn't Equal Gain

If you think prepping and painting ceilings are two of the most painful painting tasks, you are not alone. Painters routinely say that ceiling jobs, as well as painting in low areas and tight spaces, are tough on the neck, back and shoulders. Research proves their claims. Studies indicate that professional painters are among a group of construction workers who often develop shoulder and neck musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs (Stenlund et. al., 2002). Specific disorders common among painters include rotator cuff problems (supraspinatus tendonitis) and recurrent neck pain (cervical myofascitis).

Three risk factors can increase the likelihood of a professional painter experiencing an MSD. Just like the fire triangle, in which three components – fuel, source of ignition and oxygen – create fire, awkward postures, tiring forces and frequency all work together to create the ergonomics fire triangle, turning small ergonomic issues into big ones.

Posture – Maintaining extreme postures stresses the joints and cuts off blood circulation. Overhead work requires painters to work with the arms raised, bend the neck backward for long periods of time and work with the wrists in awkward positions. Painting low, hard-to-reach areas requires back bending and results in stress on the knees.
Force – Tasks that require forceful exertion place higher loads on joints and connective tissues. Using dense paint on heavy rollers and unstable extension poles can increase the amount of force required to paint.
Frequency – High frequency of repeated force exertion and awkward postures can contribute to fatigue. Applying multiple coats of paint can add to these stressful conditions.
In general, the longer the period of continuous work during which a painter is exposed to these risks, the longer the recovery time needed.


While there is no magic elixir to remove all the risks associated with these stressful tasks, removing one or more components of the ergonomics fire triangle can lower the risk of ergonomic injury. There are several simple changes that can make a significant difference. I’ve seen many homemade ergonomic interventions; there are some very wise and clever methods of making work easier and, in many cases, more efficient. Examples have included painters “customizing” extension handles with more comfortable bicycle grip overwraps, adding adjustable handle grips to poles, or even using duct tape to act as a makeshift scabbard or hand rest. One particularly creative painter repurposed a five-gallon pail by attaching it to a hand dolly to be used as a bucket tool organizer for supplies. He even padded the bucket lid so he could use it as a portable seat. Even the famed artist Michelangelo, who took four years to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, developed his own system to reach the chapel’s ceiling; rather than using a traditional scaffold, a flat wooden platform on brackets built up from the floor, he built his scaffold out from the holes in the wall near the tops of the windows.


It’s always smart to start off by choosing the right equipment for the job and to remember that one size doesn’t fit all. The key to working smarter (not harder) is choosing the right paintbrushes; roller covers with the appropriate nap, roll length and diameter; and the proper extension pole. Some painters prefer using a roller cover with a diameter of 1¾" as opposed to 1½". This allows them to spend less time working overhead; however, this is a trade-off that increases the amount of weight handled.

Regardless of the roller cover diameter, one thing is certain: There is no substitute for a good roller extension pole. The best designs offer a combination of lightweight material (fiberglass, aluminum, etc.) that is both sturdy and adjustable in length. Extensions come in various lengths, and the best ones provide pushbutton release to quickly and securely lock the pole at six-inch increments. Articulating heads and arms are also available for roller painting tasks; these allow more comfortable neck and shoulder positions. Manufacturers claim that the angular movement of these devices can make painting a ceiling much easier, allowing painters to work with the pole at a 45-degree angle instead of working directly underneath the paint. While I have not yet used these devices myself, they’re certainly worth a try.

When painting a high wall or ceiling, painters should use scaffolding whenever possible to reduce overhead reaching. Commercially available platforms are preferred over ladders because platforms provide more secure footing.

Specialty tools can also come in handy for hard-to-reach areas and tight spaces. Consider using a purpose-built edging tool for cutting in around ceiling, wall and window edges. This can reduce the frequency and duration of time spent in poor postures. Corner rollers also provide an efficient way to paint tight spots.

But there are times when it’s easier to use a brush and paint directly from a can; however, the trouble with this method is that the wire handle is uncomfortable to hold and it gets in the way when dipping the brush into the paint. Manufacturers now provide various styles of paint can handle attachments that may help reduce muscle fatigue and wrist strain.


Currently, most paint stick tools and internally fed roller systems are limited to the DIY stores and home improvement crowd. These concepts have some merit, and ergonomists like me look forward to companies developing more sophisticated systems in the future to meet the demands and work conditions of the professional painter. Paint companies have an opportunity to improve ergonomic conditions as well. Paint viscosity and material factors can make ceiling and hard-to-reach jobs even tougher. One European study evaluated a traditional paint against a new paint that was approximately 35% less dense. The study found that using the lighter paint resulted in a 20% decrease in specific energy consumption (energy consumption over and above the energy consumed at rest) per painted surface area and a 16% increase in the covering capacity of the paint. I understand that paint companies have many priorities to consider other than ergonomics, but it’s an important finding nonetheless.


Remember, one size doesn’t fit all, and difficult painting tasks require the right tool for the right task. Be aware of the posture-force-frequency risk when you plan and execute the work. Finally, injury prevention will be the result of making small and incremental changes to reduce awkward postures and tiring forces – but those small changes can provide lasting benefits for your body. APC

Josh Kerst is vice president and ergonomics engineer for Humantech and has served over the past 20+ years as lead project consultant for hundreds of ergonomic assessments, training courses and design projects. He can be reached at

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