Back injuries continue to plague the industry and prevention concepts must be reviewed from time to time. But before discussing back problems, an update on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) efforts on ergonomics is in order.

OHSA has re-established its focus. They plan a four-pronged approach consisting of guideline establishment, research, enforcement with the general duty clause, and outreach and assistance. To avoid the downfall of their previous attempts, they are assembling a National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics to overcome industry challenges. They have requested nominations from construction trade associations, "tipping a hat" to construction as one of the targets. Look for future updates from NECA.

In the meantime, don't ignore back safety. Regardless of the additional research or OSHA-compliance activity, injuries will continue to occur and action must be taken. Eight out of every 10 adults will have a serious backache at least once in his or her life.

Back pain can be caused by many things. Sources include medical problems such as kidney stones, prostrate trouble, tumors and genetic disorders. Most backaches are brought on by improper care of our body. In order to understand how to properly care for the back, you must understand how it works.

The back is made up of 32 layered blocks (or vertebrae) jointed by flat surfaces called facets. Ligaments connect the facets. The vertebrae are separated and cushioned by discs, which have an outer layer of fibers called the annulus and a jelly-like material in the center. The spinal cord runs the length of the spine, protected by the bones of the spine.

The spinal cord is a nerve that carries all the messages from the body to the brain, including pain. It also carries the messages that control your body muscles. Your back is set in motion by more than 80 muscles located in your hips, stomach and back. Many back problems originate in the lumbar and waist, areas that are in constant use.

Poor posture and improper lifting increase stress on the spine, which can result in muscle fatigue leading to severe muscle contractions or spasms, the most common cause of backache. Increased stress on the discs may lead to a "slipped" disc, which is actually a disc that has bulged through the annulus. The disc may then push on a nerve and cause pain.

When you bend over to pick up a tool, a large force is exerted on your back. Think of your body as a wrench. Bending to reach the tool is like the force of a hand pulling on the wrench. The pressure on your discs and the force of the back muscles are like the wrench turning the nut. If the object weighs 35 pounds and is 20 inches from the center of your back, the force on your back will be 613 pounds. The farther away the item, the greater the force is multiplied. Twisting the body during the lift will further increase back pressure.

¥ Be aware of the load. Never lift anything unless you know you can handle it. If the load is too heavy, get help. Use mechanical aids such as hoists whenever possible. If the load is unstable, stabilize it. A load that shifts in a package can place an increased and unexpected stress on your back.

¥ Avoid twisting. Face the load and move the entire body as a unit.

¥ Bend at the knees with your feet apart. The load should be able to fit between the knees. Never lift an object in front of bent knees. Objects lifted in front of the knees are farther from the center of the back, increasing pressure on the back.

¥ Keep your back straight.

¥ Tighten your abdominal muscles. This distributes the forces and relieves pressure.

¥ Keep the load close to your body. Hold it in front of you with both hands.

¥ Do not reach.

Poor posture is a major cause of backache. Standing or sitting improperly may eventually lead to back pain. Poor posture will stretch muscles beyond their optimum working length. Other muscles must take up the load and can become fatigued and spasms may occur.

Get proper posture by:

¥ Standing tall. Think of someone trying to look over a barrier.

¥ Holding your head directly over the shoulders. The head weighs about 20 pounds. Holding it in a forward position will tense shoulder muscles.

¥ Keeping the stomach and buttocks tucked in.

¥ Keeping the pelvis level and the stomach and buttocks aligned. Lifting and resting a leg on an object will level the pelvis and may relieve pressure.

Back maintenance begins with basic body care. A proper diet provides the back with required nutrients and fuel. Excessive calories increase weight and the load on the back. Balance your meals. Physician-approved exercise keeps your back flexible and strong. Proper rest and avoiding emotional stress relaxes your back. When resting, two positions that relieve back pressure are:

¥ Lying flat on the back with legs raised. A pillow under your legs will keep them raised.

¥ Lying on your side in the fetal position. A pillow may be placed between the legs. Change positions frequently to increase blood flow and prevent stiffness.

If we maintain our bodies, keep proper posture and lift correctly, we will reduce the risk of back injury. EC

O'CONNOR is with Intec, a producer of safety manuals with training videos and software for contractors. Based in Alexandria, Va., he can be reached at 703.628.4326, or by e-mail at joconnor@intecweb.com.