By Joan Littel, Senior Technical Editor, Workplace Safety Specialists
Keeping employees safe and healthy is every employer's top priority. Although the recently proposed ergonomics legislation did not pass, back safety remains a key concern in aircraft maintenance shops. Over 80 percent of this country's workforce will require medical attention for back problems at some point in their lives and 90 percent of those sufferers experience recurring problems. Roughly one-quarter of all non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses requiring time away from work are due to back pain.
Planning for safety
A well-planned safety program that includes attention to ergonomics can reduce the number and severity of back disorders, reduce absenteeism, and increase productivity. When employers and employees work as a team, the benefits extend to the company's bottom line through fewer workers' compensation cases. Although the average cost of a workers' compensation claim is $4,000, the cost associated with a low back problem case is around $8,000. Since approximately 30 million workers in the United States work in occupations in which back stress is a real possibility, the costs associated with back problems are staggering.
Workers whose jobs require them to perform lifting tasks or remain in awkward postures (when working in tight spaces on aircraft, for example) are at a high risk level for sprains, strains, tears, and other problems associated with the back. The majority of back injuries can be prevented. The solutions to maintaining a healthy back are simple, but require management and employee cooperation.
Management must first acknowledge and accept responsibility to protect employees through hazard identification. A safety program that incorporates back injury prevention can then be developed and implemented.
Encouraging employees to report persistent pain, aching, numbness, or burning can keep a simple problem from escalating into a more serious one. The signs may be constant or may occur after certain activities, including non-work activities. Employees who participate in back injury prevention are less likely to become injured in the first place.
It is important to note that sports, driving, posture habits, and even sleeping positions or a too-soft mattress can contribute to back pain. A health care professional should be consulted for evaluation of off-the-job factors as well as on-the-job practices. Early medical intervention is the key to preventing the need for lengthy rehabilitation or surgery and can bring about necessary changes in the workplace to avoid similar injuries.
Engineering controls are modifications in how a task is performed in order to avoid a hazard without relying on employees to take any action. Engineering controls have been determined by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to be the most effective method to control or eliminate workplace hazards. The shop's hazard assessment will describe recommended modifications. Modifications that are considered engineering controls are easy to check because they are visible manipulations to the work area.
Factors to consider include work area layout. The height of work surfaces and seating should be adjusted for maximum comfort. Tools should be placed within easy reach to reduce stretching. Tools appropriate to the task should be provided. Each employee's physical capability should be considered. Work postures, repetition of tasks, and duration of tasks should be evaluated and modified as determined to minimize stress on the back. Parts and tools should be stored in easily accessible bins at appropriate heights to eliminate awkward twisting and bending.