On my way to work early one morning, walking through St Peter’s Square in Manchester, I happened upon a couple of dozen blokes in hi-vis workwear standing in a big circle. At the centre stood a woman, presumably a physiotherapist of some kind, taking them through a series of warmup exercises. Arms windmilled, necks rotated, knees were hugged to chests. I filed this away as a very sweet sight and a fine but possibly rare example of a company doing the right thing by its manual workforce.
Then, this week, I was filming something for the BBC’s Countryfile programme in west Cornwall. Driving to somewhere spectacular, I asked the runner, a young man who we’ll call Tam from Taunton, what other shows he had worked on in his career. I got one of the more interesting answers I’ve had to that question: he had spent three years working as a roofer. Like, I suspect, many of the thousands of media students who graduate every year, he was unable to find a job in television. He said he had done quite well at roofing, and enjoyed it. So why, I asked, did he stop?
“It was seeing the other roofers, and brickies and scaffolders and whatever, who’d been doing it a long time, and the physical state they were in … I just thought that I don’t want to end up like that.”
I thought of all the many athletes I’ve interviewed and spent time with – the footballers, rugby players, boxers and so on – who have talked about the long-term damage they do to their bodies in their line of work. I’m entirely respectful and sympathetic of their issues, but rarely have I considered the physical toll on the bodies of people doing manual work every day. And, unlike athletes, I doubt they have constant access to physios, masseurs, medics and so on – the support crews who help keep sportsmen and women from falling to pieces. Neither, I assume, do they make the kind of money that you need to pay for private physiotherapy; I doubt the NHS is equipped to be of much assistance. Unlike athletes who can take a rest, albeit reluctantly, I expect many manual workers have employers who don’t pay a lot of heed to aches and pains. And as for the self-employed, they’ll feel unable to afford to take a break anyway.
I asked my man Tam, the roofer turned runner, if he had ever seen anyone on site doing any kind of stretching, warmup, warm-down or anything whatsoever to equip their bodies to deal with what they were putting them through. Tam just laughed, obviously.
Kevin Lidlow is a chartered physiotherapist of 30 years standing who tells me he has seen the consequences of this neglect over and again. He talks about the “constitutional attrition” that eventually wears and tears workers’ bodies out. “We find that they just carry on working regardless. It tends to be when they stop – for good or just temporarily for some reason – that the problems they’ve stored up reveal themselves. At that point we can teach them what to do, or rather what they should have been doing, but by then it’s too late.”
I had a quick internet search for “stretching exercises for manual workers”. There’s useful stuff on there but, as far as I could see, not a lot of it generated in the UK. Much of it comes from New Zealand, for some reason.
I suspect that the smaller the building site, the less likely it is that health and safety rules will be strictly adhered to. But even on bigger, intensively managed projects, I wonder if it’s more about hard hats, safety boots and safe working practices aimed, sensibly, at reducing accidents rather than the long-term damage done to workers’ bodies everywhere.