Biomechanics of Walking on Railroad Ballast
A recent study evaluated the effects of walking on ballast on railroaders. The peer-reviewed study concluded that railroads should use smaller ballast in yards and other locations where railroaders must walk as part of their jobs. The study potentially could represent a step forward toward recognizing a link between walking on uneven ballast and cumulative trauma disorders and musculoskeletal disorders suffered by railroaders.
The study, which was presented at a conference on computer-aided ergonomic and safety research, investigated the rearfoot motion of railroaders walking under different conditions. The research focused on the bio-mechanisms of loading of the lower extremities that could lead to musculoskeletal disorders -- even when slips, trips, or falls did not occur. The study participants, whose average age was 32 years, were required to walk while their rearfoot motion was measured on level concrete, yard ballast (rock about 1.9 cm across), and mainline ballast (3.8 cm). The simulated railroaders' rearfoot motion was measured by an Optotrak system while the subjects walked a set distance wearing work boots.
This research is important because a significant portion of many railroaders' work day involves walking on ballast. Every railroader knows that walking on ballast can cause injury. While slips, trips and falls from torn up ballast are "recognized" causes of work injuries, less well-known and recognized are the musculoskeletal disorders that railroaders develop from regularly walking on ballast as part of their job.
The results of the study, which may not be surprising to railroaders, were important: rearfoot range of motion was significantly greater walking on the mainline ballast than walking on either the yard ballast or the concrete. In fact, the rearfoot range was more than twice as great walking on mainline ballast than walking on level concrete.
In the interests of safety and the worker health, the study recommended that railroads should place smaller (yard) ballast in locations where trainmen have to walk as part of their jobs.
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