Safety Matters: Watch Your Back

The frequency and economic impact of back injuries on the work force are expected to increase over the next several decades as the average age of the work force increases and medical costs go up. So what can you do to avoid becoming a painful statistic?


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1 million workers suffer from back injuries each year. And ergonomic disorders are the most rapidly growing category of work-related illnesses reported to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

The frequency and economic impact of back injuries on the work force are expected to increase over the next several decades as the average age of the work force increases and medical costs go up. So what can you do to avoid becoming a painful statistic?

Back disorders can develop gradually as a result of repetitive activity over time or can be the product of a single traumatic event. Many things can cause low back injuries — muscle strain or spasm, sprains of ligaments, joint problems, or a slipped disk. The most common cause is using your back muscles in activities you’re not used to doing. A slipped disk happens when the disk between the bones bulges and presses on nerves. This is often caused by twisting while lifting. Because of the slow and progressive nature of back injury, it is often ignored until the symptoms become acute. And severe back injuries can be the immediate result of improper lifting techniques and/or lifting loads that are too heavy for the back to support.

Back to Basic Training

Knowing what could cause injury should be the first line of defense. A safety training program should include proper lifting techniques, general principles of ergonomics, safe work practices, recognition of hazards and injuries, procedures for reporting hazardous conditions, and methods and procedures for early reporting of injuries.

A training program should show how proper lifting techniques will prevent injury. To be effective it should be tailored to employees and the actual workplace, and should be repeated frequently. Training can include safety videos and wall posters to reinforce proper procedures.

Cause and Prevention

Back injuries result from exceeding the capability of the muscles, tendons, discs, or the cumulative effect of several factors. And this can be caused by poor posture; poor physical condition; poor design of the work area; twisting, reaching, or bending while lifting; fatigue; and lifting objects that are too heavy.

Did one of your New Year’s resolutions involve exercising more? If so, this can help prevent back injury. Regular exercise will keep your weight in check and minimize stress on your back, both of which will offer back protection. While there are specific stretching and strengthening exercises that target back muscles, regular exercise will increase your long-term flexibility and coordination.

Poor posture can lead to muscle fatigue and injury. Maintaining good posture releases your muscles and requires minimal effort to balance your body. So try and maintain good posture; keep your head, shoulders and hips in a straight line, with your head up and your stomach pulled in. If you must stand for long periods, rest one foot on a low stool to relieve pressure on your lower back. If your job requires you to sit for long periods of time, use a chair with a straight back or low-back support.

Lifting belts can be used to enforce good posture and to help reduce low back strain and muscle fatigue. Back supports can’t prevent injury but can act as a reminder to use correct posture and proper lifting techniques. The belts circle the waist, supporting the lumbar region of the spine and increase pressure on abdominal muscles. Companies that manufacture back support belts include Valeo, OK-1 Safety & Ergonomics, Ergodyne, Chase Ergonomics, and Allegro Industries.

If it’s already too late to prevent back pain, there are several ways to treat it. Rest is recommended. Take it easy for a few days to rest the muscles. Other methods to relieve pain include massages, over-the-counter pain relievers, heating pads, or cold packs; however, if severe pain continues, consult a doctor.

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