Back disorders cost electrical contractors millions of dollars each year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that more than 1 million workers suffer back disorders annually. They account for 20 percent of workplace injuries and illnesses. Twenty five percent of all compensation indemnity claims involve the back. BLS surveys further demonstrate that four out of five occupational back disorders result from lifting.

The collection, analysis and synthesis of this data has prompted a great deal of research in the nature, causes and prevention of back-related disorders. This research helps us better understand how back disorders occur and what actions we can take to effectively prevent them.

Safety professionals know that back injuries rarely result from a single acute event. They are usually the result of cumulative stress placed on the back over an extended period of time. It is also clear that many factors such as emotional stress, rest, nutrition, age, genetics and physical conditioning contribute to these disorders.

Hazards that contribute to back disorders must be identified. Information taken from the OSHA 300 logs, OSHA 301 reports and medical records can be used to identify jobs or conditions that put workers at risk. Effective communication with workers can also assist in the identification of hazards. Complaints of aches and pains resulting from specific tasks should be noted so that further investigation can be pursued. When back disorders are suspected, every effort should be made to provide treatment as early as possible. Early detection and treatment may prevent impairment and disability.

Once hazards have been identified, action can be taken to evaluate and improve the controls. Controls can be classified into three categories: engineering, administrative and personal protective equipment. Engineering controls have proven to be the most effective means of controlling hazards. They are typically the most difficult to defeat and the least impacted by human error. For example, use forklifts to hoist transformers and switchgear. Ramps or lift gates could be used to load machinery into trucks and suction devices can be used to lift junction boxes and other materials with smooth, flat surfaces.

When engineering controls are not feasible, administrative controls—polices, procedures and training—can be used. Management may introduce a policy that requires more that one worker to handle large spools. A two-man lifting procedure would then need to be developed. Finally, workers would be trained in the new lifting policy and procedure. To assist you in determining lifting limits, one local Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office developed a simple digital calculator. This handy application is available free through Intec.

The final classification of controls is personal protective equipment. The back belt is a controversial protective device. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has conducted extensive research in the use of back belts. There are no definitive studies on either the beneficial or harmful effects of wearing back belts. All personal protective equipment require the additional application of administrative controls. When any protective device is issued, policies, procedures and training must be implemented. In practice, hazard controls are best combined to provide the highest level of protection for the worker.

Consider the prevention of accidents when planning new work and operations. Prefabricate items in a central area where mechanical lifts can be used. Order supplies in smaller quantities and break down loads off-site. When possible, request that vendors and suppliers break down loads prior to delivery. Only transport smaller, finished products to the site.

Finally, consider the impact recreational, domestic and leisure activities have on the physical condition of the work force. Golfing, home improvement projects, and even emptying a child’s wading pool can contribute to a work-related back disorder.

It is in the best financial interest of every organization to protect its work force on and off the job. Through training, we can hope to reduce the number of back-related, lost time accidents. An effective training program addresses the mechanics of the back, factors that contribute to back disorders and simple precautions that can keep the back healthy and strong. It is certain that a competency-based approach to this training, as with all training, will yield the best results. The training program must begin with clear, well-written objectives and conclude with a means to ensure the objectives are attained. The training can be outsourced or developed and implemented by your in-house staff.

The most effective programs include workers in the hazard identification and problem-solving process. Both management and workers have much to gain in the prevention of these debilitating and costly accidents. An effective program will provide a measurable improvement in your organization’s bottom line.

For information on chapter training programs or obtaining the free Lifting Calculator Application, contact Keith Williams at kwilliams@intecweb.com. 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 joconnor@intecweb.com