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Veteran masons and other construction workers have tricks and techniques that help reduce the amount of stress on their bodies. However, these techniques are not always easily explained to new workers, who are at higher risk for injury.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo are utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) to help novice workers reduce wear-and-tear injuries and boost the productivity of skilled construction workers.

The researchers used motion sensors and AI software to track the previously unidentified techniques expert bricklayers use to limit the loads on their joints, which can be now passed on to apprentices in training programs.

“The people in skilled trades learn or acquire a kind of physical wisdom that they can't even articulate,” Carl Haas, Ph.D., a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Waterloo, said in a statement. “It's pretty amazing and pretty important.”

Musculoskeletal injuries cause many apprentices to drop out and many experienced workers to prematurely wear out.

The researchers found that master masons do not often follow the standard ergonomic rules taught to novices, but rather develop their own ways of working quickly and safely. Some examples of this includes more swinging than lifting of blocks and less bending of their backs.

“They're basically doing the work twice as fast with half the effort—and they're doing it with higher quality,” Haas said.

In the first study, the researchers looked at data from bricklayers of various experience levels who wore sensor suits while building a wall with concrete blocks. This revealed that experts put less stress on their bodies, while accomplishing more.

The researchers then conducted a follow-up study to determine how master masons work more efficiently. They used sensors to record the movements of the masons and AI computer programs to identify patterns of body positions.

They now plan to do more in-depth studies of how experts move on the job.

“Skilled masons work in ways we can show are safer, but we don't quite understand yet how they manage to do that,” Haas said. “Now we need to understand the dynamics.”

The researchers are also developing a system that uses sensor suits to give trainees immediate feedback so that they can modify their movements to reduce the stress on their bodies.

“There is an unseen problem with craft workers who are just wearing out their bodies,” Haas said. “It's not humane and it's not good for our economy for skilled tradespeople to be done when they're 50.”   

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