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Back Safety: Preventing the Most Common Workplace Injury

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Back injuries are the most frequently reported workplace injury. Injuries to the back can cause debilitating pain and permanently impact one’s quality of life. While some back injuries are the result of a fall, impact, or other trauma, most back injuries can be prevented through proper posture and body mechanics. This guide will help you understand the proper techniques for lifting and moving items in the workplace.

HOW DOES THE BACK WORK?

Some of the most common mistakes workers make when lifting or moving heavy items are twisting, bending, overexertion, and lifting with poor posture. To understand how to lift and move objects properly, it is helpful to know how the back works.

The main structural element of your back is the spinal column. The spinal column is made up of 33 bones called vertebrae. The vertebrae are connected to each other with facet joints, which allow movement. In between each vertebra is a spinal disc, which is connective tissue with a tough exterior and a softer, shock-absorbing center. The spinal cord provides supports the head, absorbs shock, and provides stability, strength, and flexibility to the back. The spinal cord and nerves pass through openings in the center of the vertebrae, called the spinal canal. The nerves in the spinal canal send information between the brain and other parts of the body.

The back is essential to performing everyday tasks, so injuries to your back can be especially disruptive and painful.

Common Back Injuries

Strains

Strains are injuries caused by the tearing or stretching of muscle fibers or tendons. Strains can vary in severity: strains can encompass minor stretching to very painful tears. Serious strains may require medical attention in to heal properly. Strains are categorized by severity into grades:

Grade I: Some muscle fibers are stretched, which causes pain and tenderness, but strength is not affected.

Grade II: More muscle fibers are stretched, and a significant loss of strength is present. Pain and swelling are also present.

Grade III: A muscle is torn all the way through, which causes significant pain and loss of muscle strength.

Sprains

Sprains refer to the stretching or tearing of ligaments. Ligaments are the strong bands that connect bones together in joints. Like strains, sprains can vary in severity. Sprains are also categorized by severity into grades:

Grade I: Painful stretching of a ligament.

Grade II: A partial tear of a ligament, causing pain, swelling, and limited joint movement.

Grade III: A complete tear of a ligament, causing potentially severe pain, limited movement, and loss of joint stability.

Muscle Spasms

A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of the muscle. Spasms are generally not harmful in the long-term, but they are often painful and can inhibit your ability to perform tasks associated with the affected muscle. Spasms can be caused by overuse, overexertion, and dehydration.

Damaged Discs

Intervertebral discs are comprised of a soft jelly-like center surrounded and protected by tougher outer tissue. Continued pressure on the disc due to poor posture or repetitive straining can cause a disc to bulge which can cause pain by putting pressure on nearby nerves. Sometimes a tear in the tough outer tissue will occur, allowing some of the gelatinous material in the discs center to escape. Bulging or damaged discs can cause pain, discomfort, and numbness.


BACK INJURY RISK FACTORS

Back injuries are the most common type of workplace injuries. This is in part because back muscles are often used in common workplace tasks. Because using the back is so commonplace, it can be easy to perform work tasks without giving special attention to technique. Back injuries are sometimes the result of accumulated stress over a long period of time, so it is extremely important to adopt proper techniques so that they become habitual.

Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Poor posture
  • Twisting, reaching, or bending
  • Overexertion
  • Inadequate rest or recovery time

Your lifestyle and health can also contribute to the risk of back injury. Smoking, obesity, malnutrition, and weak muscles all heighten your risk of back injury.

Smoking accelerates the decay of spinal discs. Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide, which restricts healthy blood flow, including to your lower back. The resulting decrease in oxygen and nutrients can weaken the back and inhibit the body’s healing processes. Quitting smoking, in addition to numerous other health benefits, is a good way to help prevent back injury.

Exercise is another important way to prevent back injuries and promote overall health. Exercise and stretching strengthen muscles and increase flexibility.

PROPER LIFTING TECHNIQUES

Posture

Maintaining the correct posture reduces the pressure placed on your back. A good posture preserves the natural “S” shape of your back. Proper posture has the following elements:

Head aligned so that the ears are over the shoulders.

Arms below shoulders

Elbows close to the body

Feet flat on the floor or other surface

Hands, wrists, and forearms relaxed and extending naturally from the arms.

Avoid slouching or static postures. If you must stay at a desk or station for a long period of time, take small, frequent breaks that allow you to change your position.

Body Mechanics

Proper body mechanics allow you to perform physical tasks safely while keeping your back in the proper posture. Workplace tasks that force the back out of its natural position or place too much strain on muscles, ligaments, or discs can cause serious injury. When lifting or moving heavy objects, it is essential to your safety to use the proper technique. The most common mistakes in body mechanics are twisting, bending, and reaching.

Twisting puts stress on your back and muscles, making injury more likely. If possible, move your feet so that your body is straight before moving or a lifting a heavy object. 

Bending at the waist when lifting heavy objects can be very dangerous to your back. When the body is bent at the waist, it operates like a lever, with the waist as the fulcrum point. Because the load is not centered, extra pressure is placed on your lower back. This means that lifting a 10-pound object while bent at the waist puts 100 pounds of pressure on your back. The weight of the upper body also contributes to the pressure on your lower back. To avoid bending at the waist, bend your knees with the back straight, hold the object close to the torso, and straighten the knees. This technique uses the strength of the leg muscles instead of putting pressure on the lower back.

Lifting or moving heavy objects while reaching can result in injuries to the back, neck, and shoulders. When possible, eliminate the need to reach by using tools or by rearranging your workstation.

Avoiding excessive repetition

Our muscles need rest between periods of exercise to recover. Without sufficient rest and recovery time, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are at risk for injury. To prevent this, workers should take frequent, small breaks from repetitive physical tasks. When possible, use ergonomic tools that decrease stress on your body.

Avoiding excessive force

Some objects are too heavy to safely lift. Some loads must be broken up into smaller loads, or moved with the help of machinery such as lift trucks.

LIFTING AND MOVING TECHNIQUE

The first step to safely lifting or moving objects, often overlooked, is to plan the lift. Before you lift a heavy load, the following should be established first:

  • The weight of the load
  • The method of lifting. Will you lift the load alone, with a coworker, with a machine, in one trip, or in multiple trips? It is important to choose the safest and most efficient method at the outset.
  • The route of the lift. Clutter, spills, and workplace traffic can all pose hazards when moving an object from one spot to another. Once you choose an efficient route, you should conduct an inspection of the route to make sure it is hazard-free. Any debris should be moved, and all doors should be propped open.

Most packing boxes list the weight of the box on the outside of the package or on the packing slip. OSHA recommends that you do not lift packages weighing more than 50 pounds alone. If a package weighs more than 50 pounds, seek help from another employee or use mechanical means. If you are not sure of the weight of a package, try to nudge or tilt the package. If you cannot move it without straining, the package is too heavy to safely lift alone.

Make sure that you are wearing proper protective gear before lifting. Non-skid shoes with toe protection are required when moving heavy loads. Gloves may help protect your hands from rough materials and may aid in gripping loads.

LIFTING THE OBJECT

Once you have determined that you can lift the object safely without help and you have planned an efficient route, you must lift the load with proper technique. A proper lift can be divided into 5 steps:

Step 1: Stand facing the load with your legs shoulder length apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other.

Step 2: Bend your knees into a squatting position.

Step 3: Use both hands to grab the load. Keep the load between your shoulders and waist and hold it close to your body. Make sure to keep your back straight and your elbows in.

Step 4: Tighten your abdominal muscles.

Step 5: Lift using your leg muscles, keeping your back straight and your stomach muscles tightened.

UNBALANCED AND AWKWARDLY PLACED LOADS

Not all loads will be evenly balanced. If you must lift a load in which the weight is unevenly distributed, keep the heaviest end closest to your body. If the load is in a difficult-to-reach position, it is important to still use the proper technique. If a load is too low to lift while squatting, you should kneel first, with one leg slightly in front of the other. Keep the load close to your body, tighten our abdominal muscles, and lift using your legs. If available, use knee pads, which will reduce pressure on your knees. If you must lift several low loads, acquire knee pads first. If you must lift a load that is elevated above shoulder level, use a ladder or stool to avoid reaching. Lifting a load above your shoulders places too much pressure on your back.

CARRYING AND MOVING THE LOAD

After you lift a load, it is important to keep the correct posture and technique while carrying or moving the load. The load should always be kept as close to the body as possible, keeping the weight of the load between the shoulders and waist. To avoid awkward positions or stress on your neck, keep your head up and straight, facing the direction in which you are walking. Your stance should be slightly wider than shoulder length. If you need to change directions, move your whole body while keeping your back straight.

Never twist or bend while moving a load. Avoid stacking a load above shoulder length, this puts too much pressure on the back and shoulders. Do not try to lift too much weight at once. OSHA recommends not moving more than 50 pounds in one move. If you must move more, use mechanical help or ask another employee to help you.

If you are using a hand cart, the techniques associated with lifting and moving still apply. For instance, do not bend or twist while pushing a hand cart. If you are pushing a hand cart up an inclining surface and you must lower the angle of the handle, this will increase the weight you are lifting. If you must use a hand cart up inclining surfaces, load the cart with less weight or use a cart that has a third wheel, which will allow you move the load without extra exertion.

GENERAL PREVENTION

In addition to the techniques discussed above, there are several general lifestyle habits that can promote back health and help prevent injury.

Exercise

Regular exercise can help strengthen muscles, which in turn can help limit potential injuries. Many adults do not get enough exercise. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends adults perform at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise, or 1 hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week. Inactivity can weaken your muscles and your heart and leave your body in a state more susceptible to injury. In addition, adults should do muscle strength-training exercises at least twice a week.

Aerobic exercise, along with healthy eating, can also help you lose weight. Being overweight or obese puts extra pressure on your back and knees and can lead to increased risk of injury.

Smoking

In addition to several other health hazards, smoking accelerates decay of the spinal discs. Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide, which limits the body’s ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body. This can weaken the back and hinders recovery in the event of an injury. If you are a smoker and want to quit, there are helpful resources here (https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/quit-smoking/guide/index.html).

CONCLUSION

Back injuries are the most commonly reported workplace injury, but simple steps can be taken to significantly reduce risk of injury. Workers should be trained to lift and move loads properly. This training must be clear and should be reiterated often. If heavy loads are unavoidable, properly maintained mechanical aids must be supplied by the employer, and employees must be trained to use them properly. General wellness is also especially important to overall back health. Proper techniques, along with healthy habits and lifestyle choices, can greatly reduce the risk for potentially debilitating back pain and injury. 

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