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The Hurt Business

Chronic Pain is a worldwide epidemic. Painters are particularly at risk. Whether it’s reaching to paint a ceiling or kneeling to paint the baseboards, the average painter’s workday is a minefield for injuries that can lead to chronic pain. Here’s how to avoid an early retirement.

3 July, 2024

 

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Steve Lockwood never thought the pain would come for him, certainly not when he was still young and vital.

Lockwood got his start in the trades in 2001 straight out of high school. He started with a general contractor doing painting and general construction and enjoyed the physical activity. Eventually, he went to work for his girlfriend’s dad—now his father-in-law.

“I’m kind of a country guy,”says Lockwood from his home in Petersburg, Illi-

Nois. “So I’m outside doing stuff—cutting wood, fishing, and lifting. I’m just a worker.”

By 2008, when he was in his mid-20s, Lockwood began to specialize in painting, and that’s when the pain began.

“From my wrist to my elbow, at the end of the day, it would just be burning on fire,” he recalls.“And I just dealt with it, right? You work through it. And you’re a man; you’re supposed to just push through it, so for several years my arms just hurt.”

Some days were worse than others. He’d feel it when he picked up paint

buckets and when he was spackling—anything that put pressure on his wrist, including pulling the trigger on the sprayer all day.

He tried to compensate as best he could. He switched to using his left hand, figuring the nondominant arm would take some of the pressure off.

Then his left arm started hurting, too.

“I’m thinking, ‘I’m too young,’” Lockwood says.“I’m supposed to be in the prime of my life. I have so many things I want to do. You don’t want to be decrepit that young.”

He started to worry that he’d have to retire prematurely. What would he do to earn a living when he could no longer perform the work he’d done his entire life?

He couldn’t help but wonder: “If it hurts this bad now, what’s it going to be like in my early 60s?”

The Prevalence of Pain

Chronic pain is an invisible epidemic in America.

Defined as pain that persists or progresses over a long period of time—typically longer than three to six months—chronic pain afflicts an estimated 20% of U.S. adults, or 50 million people, according to an analysis of National Health Interview Survey data by the Center for Disease Control. Of those, 8%, or 19.6 million, experienced high-impact chronic pain, which is particularly debilitating.

The impact of chronic pain on sufferers is profound, affecting physical, emotional, and social aspects of life.

Workers with chronic pain are 64% less likely to view their jobs as rewarding, according to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Pain. They are 47% more likely to be subject to threats or abuse in the workplace, 30% more likely to report poor supervisor support, and 28% more likely to perceive discrimination in the workplace. Chronic pain is also associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety.

All that suffering comes at a stiff price. According to the National Academy of Sciences, chronic pain costs the economy $560 billion to $635 billion each year, with roughly half that coming in the form of healthcare costs, over $90 billion in work hours missed, and a quarter billion in lower wages. All told, chronic pain costs more than heart disease and cancer treatments.

While all working Americans are at risk for developing chronic pain, no one is more vulnerable than those in the skilled trades. Physical labor takes a heavy toll on the body. A pilot study of

construction workers in Wisconsin found that a staggering 86% reported acute musculoskeletal pain, a fancy name for chronic pain that affects bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons,

and nerves. Musculoskeletal pain—particularly in the lower back—is the No. 1 contributor to disability worldwide, with up to one-third of all people suffering some form of it, translating to 1.75 billion globally.

Even something as simple as prolonged standing can be a risk factor for back pain, leg pain, joint problems, and chronic pain. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that prolonged standing for more than four hours a day increased the risk of musculoskeletal injuries by 15%.

Painters are particularly at risk. Whether it’s reaching to paint a ceiling or kneeling to paint the baseboards, the average painter’s workday is a minefield for injuries that can lead to chronic pain.

 

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Fixing Work

Work should not hurt.

That’s the message of Chris Palaczuk, the ergonomics program manager at Construction Health and Safety New Zealand (CHASNZ), one of the world’s foremost experts in on-the-job musculoskeletal injury and chronic pain.

Palaczuk has seen hundreds of painters in his work as an educator. He typically goes with them to the jobsite to observe how they work. He says there’s no shortage of stories about the aches and pains of the trade.

“Nine out of 10 painters that I talk to in my job have something, even early on in their career, that they complain about—a knee, shoulder, or lower back problem,” he says.“We actually see a spike in claims in painters around their 30s, and we think that’s an early warning sign of the wear and tear that happens, and usually they seem to be able to overcome that. Then we see another spike in the late 40s and early 50s, and that spike has a lot more time off work, and it seems like a lot of those people don’t actually return to painting at that stage of their life.”

Chronic pain in painters is so common that there is even a specialized term for it: “painter’s shoulder. ”That is a colloquial name for impingement syndrome, a condition in which the rotator cuff is pinched between the shoulder joint and the roof of the shoulder, leading to aches, tenderness, and sharp pains, especially when reaching behind the back.

A cross-sectional study in Germany found that one-quarter of the general population had suffered impingement syndrome in their dominant shoulder, with 8% seeking medical assistance.

But when researchers looked at a population of professional painters who had worked 10 years or more, the scope of the problem was huge: 75% of painters suffered from impingement syndrome, and more than half had sought medical treatment.

Palaczuk has observed a startling increase in both the number of injuries and the amount of missed work because of them. On average, each claim of musculoskeletal problems in a painter will result in 40 days of lost productivity.

There are a number of easy fixes that can keep painters healthy. Polaczuk points to new tools and technologies that have the potential to revolutionize the trade.

“Spray painting offers the opportunity to redesign painting because it totally changes the way it’s applied, ”he says. “It’s quicker, and it’s better quality. So you can actually paint more, but you can have a little more of a balanced lifestyle.”

Trying to work quickly is a key factor. Trying to hurry up and finish the job is a big reason why injuries are so common.

“The pressure of time going along with all these takes just accentuates the problem,”Polaczuk says.“If we can eliminate the fallacy of time, if we can focus back on quality, we’ll still get the painting done, but it will be a better job for the clients and a better job for our Painters.”

Try telling that to the owner. Time is money, and all of this talk of taking breaks sounds a lot like losing profits.

It’s hard enough to keep pace with business and squeeze all the jobs into the summer season. Now you want to loaf around on the jobsite under the guise of quality?

But Palaczuk says it’s in an owner’s best interest to implement change and that it will ultimately benefit the bottom line.

“There’s a hell of a lot of money to be saved by preventing injuries in the first place,” Palaczuk says.“Having experienced staff on your team on an ongoing basis will bring you profitability and value, so you’ve got to look after them. You’ve got to reduce the wear and tear on these guys.”

Of course, it’s impossible to take all of the pain out of painting. After all, it is a skilled trade, not a desk job. But the more you can take care of yourself now, the better off you’ll be in retirement.

“There’s a high likelihood that you’re going to wear and tear some parts of your body,” Palaczuk says.“But there’s a lot of things you can do during your working day to reduce your risk of that. It’s generally working smarter, not harder.”

Preventing Pain

They call Don Easton a hippie surfer.

Maybe it’s because he lives in Woodland, California, about an hour and a half from San Francisco. Maybe it’s his love for the Redwood Forest and the ocean. Or maybe it’s because of his Zen attitude.

“I laugh at it when they call me a hippie,” says the proprietor of Easton Painting Inc. “I’m like, ‘Dude, seriously? I know hippies. I’m not a hippie. But fine, if you want to call me that, it’s cool.’”

That attitude may account for the longevity of his painting career. At 57, he’s still going strong after several decades as a painter.

He credits his not-so-secret weapon: stretching.

“Stretch and flex is part of my daily routine throughout the day,” he says.

Stretching has been part of Easton’s life since well before painting. His father was a Navy corpsman and instilled in him the importance of injury prevention and treatment. An athlete, Easton saw the importance of prepping for physical exertion.

When he eventually found his way into the trade, Easton brought stretching with him.

The routine starts right after his morning coffee. He moves around to get the oxygen flowing. He does yoga, some Pilates, and planks for his lower back.

It doesn’t stop when he arrives at the jobsite. He pops the tailgate and gets in a good stretch before he starts the work.

“I’ll put my leg up and stretch,” he says. “I’ll lean against the tailgate and stretch my shoulders and my forearms, then pull them back to stretch the tri-ceps.”

When he gets home, it’s time to recover. Depending on what he did that day, he’ll try to apply the opposite pressure to balance the strain. Frog pose, child’s pose—he knows the yoga poses sound silly to some, but they work.

That doesn’t mean he has escaped injury scot-free. Fifteen years ago, he tore his meniscus. Eight years ago, it was a rotator tear. In both cases, he eschewed surgery and used Pilates to strengthen the surrounding areas and keep working.

Strange as it may sound, taking time off from the job can actually make the problem worse.

“It seems counter-intuitive, but continuing to work is actually one of the best things that you can do,” says Palaczuk, of CHASNZ. “The research says that if you take time off, it’s not a good way to recover from musculoskeletal injury.”

Both Palaczuk and Easton know that one of the biggest barriers to changing painting is the machismo that comes with the trade.

“It’s not manly,” Easton sarcastically says of stretching.“It’s not Alpha; it’s not Tough.”

Yet that hasn’t stopped Easton from sharing his wisdom—even if he does occasionally get called a hippie. In the Craftsmanship forum on Facebook, he introduced his concept of the 3Bs: Body, Brain, and Brush.

“It’s just like taking care of your tools,” Easton explains.“You take care of your body; you take care of your brain.”

That’s what the painting industry needs to help the next generation avoid problems with chronic pain, says Polaczuk. Just as experienced painters mentor apprentices on painting techniques, they can also teach good habits for staying healthy.

“The good thing is these guys who have worn and torn themselves can get motivated to help the younger guys,” he says. “That’s really where we need to go with this.”

Finding Relief

Around 2020, Lockwood’s pain came to a head.

He and his wife had just bought their house in Petersburg. Situated on six acres of land, the house was a bit of a fixer-upper—nobody had done anything with the property since the turn of the century, and everywhere he looked were trees that needed to be cut down.

Lockwood was clearing brush and cutting down trees, using a chainsaw that made his arms throb with pain, when his wife came out to bring him iced tea. Lockwood went to grasp the red Solo cup and it fell to the ground. He couldn’t even hold a plastic cup.

That was a wake-up call.

“She was like, ‘That’s it; you’re getting fixed,’” Lockwood recalls.“We’re going to figure this thing out.”

The first step was a visit to a general practitioner. They told him he had nerve damage and would need to undergo surgery to fix it.

Lockwood leans toward a more holistic lifestyle, and didn’t look forward to going under the knife. Around that time, he was painting a house for a woman who happened to be an anesthesiologist.

Rather than counsel him to go the traditional route, she warned him away.

“Don’t do the surgery,” Lockwood recalls her saying. “I know what the doctors are going to do to you. Here’s the surgery they’re going to do first, because I put people to sleep for these surgeries. Then they’re going to go to your elbow. Then they’re going to go to your shoulder. Then they’re going to go to your neck.

“She’s like: ‘Trust me, don’t do it.’”

Lockwood had started exploring alternative medicine, including finding a chiropractor. On his first visit, the chiropractor x-rayed him and explained the results: The arm pain he was suffering was because his spine was twisted, and he was pinching nerves in his shoulder.

The technical term was“subluxation,” a misalignment of the vertebrae. It wasn’t just from using his brush. Having his arm on the window of his work van every day was damaging his shoulder. Even the way he was sleeping at night was contributing to the problem. 

The chiropractor offered Lockwood a nonsurgical intervention. He would come in to get an adjustment three times a week for a month. Then it was once a week, then once a month.

“At first it was a lot,” Lockwood says. “But I was all in. Whatever it takes, however much money, just fix me.”

He had homework as well. Each day, he had to work out with stretching bands to fix his range of motion and build up his muscles.

“And of course, it’s just miserable,” Lockwood says. “Your arms are catching fire, your shoulders are hurting, all the things. “Then, after a handful of weeks, you’re like, ‘I’m not tired yet.’”

Lockwood even had to learn to sleep differently. Lying down each night, he had to remind himself to lie on his back, straight. Sometimes he’d wake up crooked and correct his form. He changed the way he drove, too, trying his best not to rest his arm on the window or lean over to one side.

All these little adjustments began to add up after six months. One day, he was in the yard with his son, Lucas, who had a pump-action BB gun. Lockwood would pump it up so Lucas could shoot farther. At the height of his chronic pain, Lockwood could only pump the gun 10 times before the pain became too excruciating. But now he found himself pumping it 22, 23

time—he was surprised that he could keep going.

“And that was the moment,” Lockwood marvels,“actually doing something that normally would have hurt me, when I realized, ‘I don’t hurt right now. What I’m doing is working.’”

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