Employers must help protect against workplace back injuries

Check your Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) logs and workers compensation records; if yours is like most organizations, back injuries top the list. Back pain accounts for more than 25 percent of workplace injuries industrywide. Eight out of 10 Americans will be affected by back pain at some point, and regardless of the cause, the burden often falls on the workplace. Employers must help employees protect their backs from injury.

Understanding back pain is the first step in preventing injuries. The spine is a complex structure made up of vertebrae or bones, disks, nerves, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Most back pain occurs in the lower back. This area bears most of the weight.

Stress and injury to muscles and disks result when they are not strong enough for the job. This means that increasing their strength and/or reducing the stress can help prevent pain. Strengthening the body comes from a proper diet, exercise and rest. These actions also help to slowdown the normal aging process. Educating employees to address these needs may prepare them better for their job.

Managing stress must be addressed on two fronts. Mental stress can tighten muscles and affect your digestion, breaking down your body’s strength. Helping employees deal with this type of stress may be offered in the form of employee assistance programs, training on relaxation methods or advice on where to seek help. Physical stress can be managed through administrative and engineering controls.

Training on the above topics and proper lifting techniques are a must. Making sure employees are directed to seek help when lifting objects that are too heavy for an individual or requiring scheduled break periods during repetitive lifts are ways to administratively control the physical stress. Engineering controls include the use of forklifts, hand trucks, hoists and ramps and lift gates.

As a reminder, the proper lifting techniques are as follows:

  • Know the weight and nature of the object that you are lifting. Stabilize unsteady loads. Get help as needed.
  • Bend at the knees. This enables your legs to help with the lift rather than placing the whole load on your back.
  • Keep your back straight and the load close to your body.

Your body acts like a wrench with the back as a pivoting point. The package is the force of a hand pulling on the wrench. The pressure on your discs and the force of the back muscles are like the force turning the nut. The further out the package, the greater the force is multiplied.

  • Tighten your abdominal muscles. This distributes the forces and relieves pressure on the back.
  • Avoid twisting, and don’t reach for a load.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is also something to consider. Many employers have included the use of lifting belts as PPE to prevent back injuries. Studies conducted on their value are inconclusive. It has been shown that when belts are worn all the time, muscle atrophy may occur. One study showed that the belt provided no benefit until lifting loads exceeded the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health lifting limits. Other studies have shown that the belt increases the user’s awareness of the techniques used during a lift. The belt may encourage proper lifting. Employers should weigh the results of these studies, seek further information and make a decision on back belts based on conditions in their workplace.

There are no comprehensive general industry or construction industry standards that address back injury prevention. OSHA may attempt to abate this hazard by writing violations under the General Duty Clause. The General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 Section 5(a)(1) requires employers to provide a safe and healthful work place for their workers. Workers compensation losses would seem to be motivation enough for employers.

In summary, the actions an employer can take begin with an analysis of their OSHA and comp records. Determine whether the injuries seem to be reoccurring. Next inspect the work areas for lifting hazards. Identify hazardous conditions and operations. Conduct a job hazard analysis for each hazardous operation as needed to identify the workers at risk. Provide engineering controls like mechanical lifting equipment whenever possible. Provide administrative controls by modifying work practices or lifting conditions as needed. Ensure that lifting required for the task is within the proper lifting limits. Train employees as described above and record the training.

The NECA Safety Expert System offers model documents with lifting policies, safety talks for training and the NIOSH lifting calculator to determine lifting limits. For more information on the NECA Safety Expert System, contact the NECA Order Desk at 301.215.4504 (tel.), 301.215.4500 (fax) or orderdesk@neca.   EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or by e-mail at joconnor@intecweb.com.