“Back” to the Basics – Preventing Lower Back Injuries in the Workplace

Back pain and injuries account for some of the most reported and most serious common workplace injuries worldwide. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a country whose labor department doesn’t dedicate pages of literature to both employers and employees solely on this topic. Loss of work days and productivity, lifelong injuries and disabilities, and short term discomfort are all common results of lower back-related incidents.

According to an OSHA fact sheet,

More than one million workers suffer back injuries each year, and back injuries account for one of every five workplace injuries or illnesses. Further, one-fourth of all compensation indemnity claims involve back injuries, costing industry billions of dollars on top of the pain and suffering borne by employees.

-okstate.edu – OSHA Fact Sheet

While employers have a responsibility to their workers to implement training programs that minimize injuries (and proactively improve the ergonomics of work-related tasks), employees also need to respect their own bodies and know their limits. This article will be broken up into several sections, each relating to specific aspect of lower back injuries in the workplace, with a primary focus on prevention. Anyone reading through should have a solid grasp on this all-too-common workplace plague by the end of their brief time here. Let’s begin.

Eliminate Back Injuries

While we’ll get to proper lifting technique and some employee-level suggestions in a minute, one of the best things employers can do is actually seek to eliminate lower back hazards from their workplace altogether; this is known as elimination – getting rid of risks period – and should be your first step in improving safety before moving on to prevention – mitigating risks that you and your workers have to live with in order for your business to function.

Most lower back injuries are associated with lifting, and the most dangerous zones for humans are when lifted objects are below the knees or above the shoulders. These positions put additional strain on the body, and increase the risk of lifting injury several times. Think about how this might play out in your warehouse/factory/place of work: Are employees often needing to lift up heavy objects from the ground? How about set them on shelves above their shoulders or even head level? Rearranging your workplace shelves can be a great place to start improving lifting safety. Take less commonly used items and isolate them to the hard to reach shelves, while keeping more commonly used and handled goods on shelves between one and a half and five feet off the ground.

Work stations can also be good candidates for re-working depending on your current setup. Twisting the back while holding onto a heavy object generates momentum and can injure workers when movements are jerky or over-corrected. Stations in which workers are currently having to lift and turn should be arranged so that minimal movement is needed.

*Note: These situations may often be left up to the discretion of the worker, when a simple twist of the back may suffice, they might not want to move their feet and turn their whole body. Despite training to the contrary, this is a common practice as people will naturally try and take the (seeming) path of least resistance. Given the option, compliance rate with proper ergonomic procedures will never be 100%. It’s up to you to decide how to deal with this; punitive action for those repeatedly taking shortcuts is one option, but in any case where you can setup your flow of work in a manner that specifically requires, or at least encourages, proper fluid movements you should try to do so.

Lastly, for physical workplace controls, is actually looking into the types and packaging of units you buy. If materials can be bought in pallets of smaller, lighter packages, you might be able to save your workers some strain by making the switch. Often times buying the same quantity of a material in smaller, more frequently packaged amounts can translate to a marginal cost increase, but compared to the costs of even a single serious injury and subsequent investigation(s), the financial burden is minimal. Plus, your workers will thank you for not expecting them to carry around 50 pound bags of concrete/soil/chemicals/etc.

Task Delegation

Another way for employers to help keep their workers’ backs out of harm’s way is to practice appropriate task delegation. Workers will often push themselves to, or beyond, their limits when lifting, pushing, and pulling, and these are the cases in which most back injuries occur. Laying out certain tasks as off-limits for non-aided physical labor can help to avoid these situations. What is non-aided labor? This could mean placing a restriction on materials above a certain weight, such as requiring packages above X number of pounds be transported with the assistance of a hand truck, pallet jack, or cart. For heavier items above Y threshold, you might require that a forklift or some other powered device be used. Setting these restrictions as hard and fast rules can help prevent workers from making their own judgments in the moment and overestimating their own abilities.

Additionally, you might consider assigning tasks based upon the stature and physical capabilities of workers. This should be agreed upon by the employee, however, as you don’t want to end up accused of discrimination based upon build, gender, or disability.

Worker Responsibility

Workers themselves should be well-versed in the proper techniques of lifting: bending at the knees rather than the waist, using the legs instead of the back to hoist up a load, etc. Putting the techniques they learn in training into actual use is key to injury prevention.

In the unfortunate event that an injury occurs, workers should know how to best recover and be back on their feet. Because most back injuries are minor, workers should be bedridden or stay off work for no longer than two to three days. The back is designed to be in motion, and completely immobilizing it during the healing process for a minor injury can actually do more harm than good. Workers should get back to their regular routine as quickly as possible and just take it easy (and obviously avoid any task or action that caused the injury in the first place).

The Takeaway

Because the prevention of lower back injuries relies so heavily on a collaboration between employer intentions and actions and employee behaviors, it is important that you have a good working relationship with your employees and that the training materials (like this Back Injury Prevention DVD) you give them are practical and applicable, and thus more likely to be taken seriously. If you run across issues of non-compliance, one of the best things you can do is to engage in a one on one dialogue about why they’re taking shortcuts or engaging in a dangerous action. In this way, you may actually uncover other accommodations you can make that would help keep the rest of your workforce safe – the perspective of the man or woman on the “ground level” is always going to offer insight you might not see from a managerial perspective.

In the spirit of continual improvement, always try to look for better ways to protect your workers, even beyond the scope of things covered in this article. You might also want to look into and make room for things like personal equipment to assist with safe lifting, implementing daily stretching or brief exercise regiments, and other appropriate solutions.

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