Posted By: Marc Tillery /
Work can be hard on your back whether you sit at a desk typing on a computer, stand on your feet cooking, or bend and straighten hoisting heavy boxes all day. Back pain and injuries are among the most common causes of missed work in the United States. Workers whose jobs require twisting and repetitive lifting of heavy objects are particularly at risk of debilitating back injuries, but people who sit all day at work are also in danger of developing back problems.
Back safety should be top of mind for both managers and employees in order to prevent painful injuries and to minimize days lost to disability. In the United States, researchers estimate lower back pain leads to the loss of 149 million workdays annually at the cost of $100 to $200 billion dollars per year. When workers are sidelined due to back pain, there is also often a coinciding decrease in productivity, morale and work quality among remaining workers.
Common Causes of Back Pain at Work
Back pain and injuries occur when the muscles, tendons or discs of the spinal column are stressed, tear, shift or break. The most common causes of back disorders include:
- Poor lifting techniques
- Heavy lifting
- Reaching, twisting, or bending while lifting
- Jarring, forceful movements
- Repetitious movements
- Poor posture while standing for long periods of time
- Poor posture while sitting
- Poor ergonomic design in the workplace
- Vibration from machinery, such as trucks, fork lifts or agricultural machinery
- Slipping on a wet floor
- Pre-existing back conditions
Additionally, lack of exercise, smoking and poor nutrition can contribute to back problems. Older people with lower bone density are also at greater risk at work.
The above practices and circumstances can result in muscle strains, torn ligaments, and herniated discs, among other injuries. Most simple muscle and ligament injuries from overexertion will heal within a few weeks or months. However, some back disorders can cause chronic problems and disability.
How to Prevent Back Injuries at Work
Employee education and a job site designed for ergonomic safety are the keys to preventing work-related back injuries.
Employee Back Safety Education
All workers should learn the causes of back injuries at work, as well as how to prevent back problems. This training should take place during the onboarding process, and be repeated throughout their employment. Back safety best practices should also be available in employee handbooks and workplace posters.
How to Lift Properly:
- Determine the size of the load and whether you can lift it safely
- Ask for help, or use material handling equipment to move the load
- Center the load between you legs and shoulders
- Always lift with your legs, keeping the item close to your body
- Keep your back straight as you lift
- Lift steadily without jerking
- Never bend over and lift with your back
- Push, don’t pull the load
- Never twist your back while carrying an object
When sitting, adjust your chair so your thighs are parallel to the floor and your feet rest flat on the floor or a footrest. An ergonomic chair that supports the spine is important for jobs that require long stretches of sitting.
When standing, balance evenly between your feet.
Always avoid slouching—the resulting C-shape puts a strain on your back.
Stretch Before and During Work:
Whether you are a nurse, an administrative assistant, a delivery truck driver, or a welder on a construction site, it’s important to take breaks to switch positions and stretch throughout the day. If your work keeps you at a desk for long periods of time, get up and walk around the office or grab a glass of water. If you are moving boxes in a distribution center, take a stretch break.
The methods employers use to minimize the risk of back injuries will vary depending upon the type of work. But strategies may include:
- Adjusting workstations to waist height to support proper posture
- Workstations that minimize reaching and twisting
- Decreasing the size and weight of objects to be lifted
- Minimizing repetitive movements
- Storing heavy equipment and objects at waist level
- Providing mechanical lift-assisting equipment
- Rotating employees to jobs that change the muscle groups being used
- Having workers lift objects in pairs
- Providing chairs with lower-back support
- Providing cushioned mats for jobs that entail long periods of standing
Beware Back Belts
Though it’s common to see workers wearing back belts to prevent back injuries, the devices don’t stop back strain and may even make back pain more likely. Back belts give workers a false sense of security that can lead to overexertion.
From minor aches to debilitating herniated discs, back injuries can disrupt your life and your work. Take that extra moment to adjust your posture, or remind your workers to lift from their knees. With simple, consistent safety measures, many back injuries can be avoided.