Ergonomically Speaking: Safety tips for back injury prevention

Feb. 1, 2002
Ergonomically Speaking Safety tips for back injury preventionBy 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.

Hazard identification
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.

Other factors
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
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.

Administrative controls
Administrative controls reduce the likelihood of exposure to hazards such as back injuries through alteration of the manner in which physical work activities are performed. Work practice controls also act on the source of the hazard. However, instead of physical changes to a workstation or equipment, work practice controls require employees follow proper work methods. This can be accomplished through education that encourages a work culture in which safety is a priority and safe work techniques are practiced. Administrative controls are the responsibility of management, but require thoughtful implementation and careful follow-up to ensure compliance.

Administrative controls include such provisions as adequate rest breaks to allow back muscles to relax. Workers should be encouraged to momentarily relax and perform such exercises as shoulder rolls to give muscles a "mini-break."

Building awareness
Employees should be educated in recognition of hazards that have the potential to cause back injury and instructed in proper techniques to minimize stress on the back. For example, workers who routinely lift heavy loads should be rotated to decrease the stress on any one individual. The order in which tasks are performed should be considered to reduce unnecessary repetition of tasks that are stressful to the back.

Educational programs that are easily understood and followed by managers and employees should be taught initially during training of new employees and also periodically to all workers, including employees who are performing new tasks.

Employee training should include at least the following: appropriate tool selection for each task performed; tool and equipment usage regarding proper weight distribution; safe ways to perform tasks involving the back; efficient ways to reduce prolonged bending and working above shoulder height; reliance on equipment (not backs) for heavy lifting; and ways to reduce the size of loads that must be manually moved. Tasks should be sequenced to reduce multiple actions that put stress on the back.

The PPE debate
Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as back braces, for prevention of back injuries is one of the most controversial questions in the area of ergonomics. It has been determined that although these devices may appear to reduce the intensity or frequency of one type of injury, they may actually increase another type of injury because the employee must work against the device to perform a lift or other task involving the back. There are studies in which back belts have appeared to reduce back injuries, but the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) has not yet announced a final determination.

Prescriptions for prevention
Posture and exercise are sometimes neglected in back stress prevention until after an injury occurs. Proper posture keeps the musculoskeletal system in proper alignment, thereby reducing stress on muscles and joints. Postures that are awkward create forces on blood vessels, ligaments, tendons, and nerves creating discomfort and possible injury. Bending over when completing a lifting task causes compression of the spine; risk of serious lower back injury increases with loads over 50 pounds.

The back can be protected when standing through frequent shifting of body weight. Appropriate shop footwear is determined by the types of tasks the employee performs. Cushioned insoles and "hard toes" are helpful.

Exercises that emphasize strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular training should be incorporated into a routine three to five times a week for 20 to 30 minutes each session to ensure back muscles remain strong, yet flexible. Walking is one of the best exercises for strengthening the back muscles and helping maintain good posture. Weight-lifting and stretching exercises are also beneficial. Smoking should be avoided because it decreases blood flow to the discs in the back.

Management and employees can reduce and prevent back injuries if they work together. Develop your shop safety program now and see the savings - in both employee health and your bottom line! AMT