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The Importance of Preventing Back Injuries

Originally created by the Minnesota Safety Council for publication in the Minnesota Counties Insurance Trust publication The Wellspring. Used with permission.

In Minnesota, workers' experience with back injuries echoes national statistics. The back is the part of the body most frequently involved when an employee misses work because of a work-related injury. Smart employers do everything they can to prevent back injuries. They know that proper functioning of the back is important for almost all activities of daily living. Back injuries can seriously restrict a person's movements and activities, reducing quality of life for days, months, even years.

Who's at risk?

Employees may be at risk of a back injury both on and off the job if they:
  • do frequent lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing or pulling
  • lift heavy or awkward-sized objects
  • do frequent twisting, bending or leaning
  • hurry while lifting
  • stand or sit for long periods of time
  • are overweight
  • don not get enough exercise
  • do not stretch
Employees that work within certain areas may be at a higher risk for back injury. These include:
  • healthcare facilities
  • law enforcement
  • public works
  • highway departments
  • parks and recreation
  • facility maintenance
What individual factors contribute to back problems?

Lack of muscle strength and flexibility. Sprains and strains in the lower back are more likely to occur when we don't keep our muscles and ligaments strong and stretched. A sprain can occur when a sudden, forceful movement stretches a ligament which has become stiff or weak through lack of conditioning or from overuse.

Poor posture. Not keeping the spine upright and in its natural curvature can cause uneven compression on discs, which can lead to herniation.

Overexertion. If we ignore the subtle signals and pains that our backs give us to slow down or change position, we may experience a back condition.

Aging. As we get older we're more likely to get osteoporosis (decreased bone density) in our vertebrae and a decrease in the strength and flexibility of our muscles and ligaments. These effects can be reduced by exercise, stretching, proper nutrition, and by not smoking.

Other causes are bad lifting habits, obesity, smoking, and lack of proper nutrition.

How can you help prevent back injuries?

Back injury programs. Employees should consider the development of a back injury prevention program or include back injury prevention as part of their overall safety/loss control program. The program might include:
  • a written program that assigns responsibilities and establishes accountability systems
  • a commitment of resources for prevention
  • a plan for identifying and controlling situations/tasks that could result in back injuries
  • a plan for responding to back problems when they occur
  • an ergonomics and/or back care committee including persons who have been educated on prevention principles
  • planned, prioritized ergonomic workstation analyses and/or job safety analyses performed by committee members and/or an ergonomist
  • training of all employees who are exposed to the risk of back injury
Engineering controls. Engineering controls involve physical changes to the work station, equipment, facility, or any other relevant aspect of the work environment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a recent study determined that up to one-third of compensable back injuries could be prevented through better job design (ergonomics). Controls might include:
  • reducing the sizes and weights of lifted objects when possible
  • adjusting the heights of the objects to be moved and the locations to which they'll be moved (ideally, the lift should be no lower than the knees and no higher than the shoulders)
  • utilizing mechanical devices, such as lift assists, conveyors, and lift trucks
  • purchasing ergonomically designed equipment, including: adjustable chairs with lumbar support, adjustable work stations, and quality seats for vehicles
Administrative controls. In addition to engineering controls, administrative controls can be implemented to reduce the potential for back injury. Administrative controls are procedures which significantly limit daily exposure by control or manipulation of the work schedule or manner in which work is performed. Administrative controls do not eliminate or limit the hazard. Consequently, the controls must be consistently used and enforced. Examples include:
  • reduce the frequency of lifting
  • use two people
  • rotate jobs or tasks
  • train employees on proper lifting techniques and back care principles
  • encourage physical conditioning and stretching.
How can employees reduce their risk of injury?

Posture. Keeping your spine upright and head and shoulders back while standing and walking can help keep even pressure on your discs. While sitting, adjust your chair's backrest so you have lateral pressure against your lower back. If your backrest is not adjustable, try an upholstered back wedge or roll up a towel and place it behind your lower back.

Stretching and strengthening. Ask your doctor or physical therapist about exercise and stretching programs to suit the condition of your back.

Remember how to lift safely
  • Plan the lift and take your time.
  • Stand close to the object with your feet at about shoulder width for stability.
  • Bend your knees
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles to help support your back.
  • Lift with your legs, not your back.
  • Avoid twisting. Instead turn your body by stepping with your feet.
  • Set the load down properly.
  • When possible, use mechanical devices such as a lift assisting device or forklift to lift heavy objects.
Don't be afraid to ask for help if you think the object may be too heavy or if it has an awkward shape!

Other sources of information:
American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons:
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
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