Preventing Back Injuries: A Workplace Safety Priority

Kevin Flanagan

The facts are hard to ignore. About 90 percent of us will experience back trouble at some point in our lives.

Back problems are the most frequent cause of activity limitations in working-age adults. But surgery, chiropractic care, physical therapy or medications are, in the long run, not considered more effective than no treatment in reducing low back pain. Prevention is really the key!

Workplace Safety Challenge
Prevention of back injuries is a major workplace safety challenge. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one million workers suffer back injuries each year, and back injuries account for one out of every five workplace injuries or illnesses. Further, a large percentage of workers' compensation claims involve back injuries, costing employers billions of dollars on top of the pain and suffering borne by their impacted employees.

Back injury incidence is greatest among 35-55 year olds. This makes sense since it is the age group where we find ourselves most active in our careers. However, it is also the time of our lives when we begin to see our physical conditioning decline. Risk for back injury has not been strongly identified to be associated with gender, body size or shape. Injury risk does, however, appear to increase with poor physical conditioning and decrease with improved physical conditioning.

Most back injuries occur to the lower back when employees are lifting. Back disorders result when we exceed the capabilities of our muscles, tendons and discs or from the cumulative effect of these contributing factors:

  • Excessive reaching or twisting while lifting
  • Working in awkward postures
  • Sitting or standing in sedentary positions for long amounts of time
  • Stressful living and working activities
  • Unsafe body mechanics when lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying
  • Poor physical condition-loss of strength and endurance to perform physical tasks
  • Suboptimal job layout or work station design
  • Repetitive lifting or awkward movements
  • Heavy or forceful lifting
  • Vibration, e.g., from vehicles, machinery, tools

Proper Body Mechanics
When it comes to avoiding injuries, there are a number of things we can do to take care of our backs. These include using safe body mechanics and proper lifting techniques, maintaining safe working postures, keeping physically fit through stretching and exercise, stress management and good nutrition.

Safe body mechanics refers to the way we use our bodies to move and lift things. In general, we want to work in positions of strength. See this article's "Back Safety Tips" sidebar for some body mechanic recommendations related to working from positions of strength.

Materials storage and handling is another important consideration to prevent back injuries in the workplace. Objects should be placed on elevated surfaces and shelves based on frequency of use and weight. Since the safest zone for lifting is between your shoulders and waist, store heavier objects on shelves at waist level and lighter objects on lower or higher shelves.

For tasks that require heavy lifting, it is best to use what is described as the "power position" technique. Feet should be placed about shoulder-width apart. This allows for a wide base of support. The back should remain straight with head and shoulders held upward. Bend at the knees—not the low back. Straddle the load to be lifted, and keep it as close to your body as possible. Brace your body's trunk by tightening stomach and abdominal muscles. And, finally, use your body's power muscles—legs, hips and buttocks-and breathe out while lifting. Do not hold your breath!

Focus on Fitness
Physical conditioning is a key success factor when it comes to back injury prevention. Major areas of fitness to focus on include strength, stability, flexibility and endurance. Leg and trunk muscle strength is important. Recommended leg exercises include squats, lunges and presses. Trunk exercises should focus on abdominal and back extensor muscles.

Aerobic fitness has also been associated with maintaining a healthy back. Walking, running and biking 20-30 minutes per day have all been shown to help improve circulation, increase endurance and decrease recovery time after strenuous work.

It's important to acknowledge that many of the activities we do at home can affect the health of our back. We need to practice safe body mechanics and lifting techniques when performing everyday tasks, too, like washing dishes, carrying and loading groceries, picking up children, walking the dog and doing yard work like raking and shoveling.

Our sleeping situations also contribute to the health of our backs. Mattresses, pillows and beds should be in good condition. Mattresses can sometimes benefit from regularly being flipped and rotated. Since we ideally spend about one third of our day in bed, it makes good sense to pay attention to this important part of our lives.

The LGC's Health and Safety team offers a number of services to help employees stay healthy and injury-free. For example, our Back Injury Prevention training is available for worksites and through LGC Academy's online resources to groups with LGC's Workers' Compensation Program or HealthTrust coverage. For more information, visit Health and Safety Training Programs or send us an email.

Kevin Flanagan, MPH, is a Health and Safety Advisor for New Hampshire Local Government Center and an Ergonomics Assessment Specialist. To book ergonomics assessments for your group, contact your LGC Health and Safety Advisor.