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OOn my way to work early one morning, walking through St Peter’s Square in Manchester, I came across about 20 guys in high visibility work clothes standing in a large circle. In the center stood a woman, presumably some sort of physiotherapist, leading them through a series of warm-up exercises. The arms were turning, the necks were turning, the knees were tight to the chest. I rated this as a very enjoyable sight and a fine, but perhaps rare, example of a company doing the right thing with their manual labor.

Then this week I was filming something for the BBC’s Countryfile program in West Cornwall. Driving to a spectacular location, I asked the rider, a young man we’ll call Tam from Taunton, what other shows he had worked on in his career. I got one of the most interesting answers I’ve had to this question: he had spent three years working as a roofer. Like, I suspect, many of the thousands of media students who graduate each year, he couldn’t find a job in television. He said he did well on the roof and enjoyed it. So why, I asked, did he stop?

“It was seeing the other roofers, masons, scaffolders and such, who had been doing this for a long time, and the physical state they were in…I just thought I didn’t want to end up like this.”

I thought of all the many athletes I’ve interviewed and spent time with – footballers, rugby players, boxers, etc. – who spoke about the long-term damage they cause to their bodies in their work. I am fully respectful and sympathetic to their problems, but rarely have I considered the physical toll on the body of people who perform manual labor on a daily basis. And, unlike athletes, I doubt they have constant access to physios, masseurs, doctors, etc. – support teams that help prevent athletes from falling apart. I guess they also don’t make the kind of money you need to pay for private physical therapy; I doubt the NHS is equipped to be of much help. Unlike athletes who can rest, albeit reluctantly, I expect many manual workers to have employers who don’t pay much attention to pain. And as for the self-employed, they will feel unable to afford a break anyway.

I asked my man Tam, the roofer-turned-runner, if he had ever seen anyone on site doing stretches, warm-ups, warm-ups, or anything to equip their body for what he made her suffer. Tam just laughed, of course.

Kevin Lidlow is a 30-year-old licensed physical therapist who tells me he’s seen the consequences of this neglect time and time again. He speaks of the “constitutional wear and tear” that eventually wears down and tears workers’ bodies. “We see that they continue to work despite everything. It’s usually when they stop – permanently or temporarily for some reason – that the problems they have accumulated come to light. At that point we can teach them what to do, or rather what they should have done, but by then it is too late.

I did a quick internet search for “stretching exercises for manual workers”. There are some useful things there but, as far as I could see, not many of them were generated in the UK. A lot of it comes from New Zealand, for some reason.

I suspect that the smaller the job site, the less likely it is that health and safety rules will be strictly adhered to. But even on larger, intensively managed projects, I wonder if it’s more about hard hats, safety boots and safe work practices aimed, reasonably, at reducing accidents rather than damages. long-term caused to the body of workers everywhere.

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