Protect Your Back

Low-back pain is a leading cause of job-related disability and missed work, with associated costs reaching into the billions worldwide. Back issues account for nearly 20% of all injuries and illnesses that occur in the workplace, and they are common in a variety of fields from construction work, mining and forestry to manufacturing and health care. While low-back pain typically begins to affect people between the ages of 30 to 50, most people (4 out of 5) suffer back pain, which is often work-related, at one time or another in their lives.

Studies show that the most lost productive time due to back pain occurs in the form of missed days or reduced performance. The cost of pain management is an enormous burden on businesses and to society in general, but many of these injuries can be avoided. The trick is to proactively address the issue and apply preventative guidelines and methods BEFORE you're left with treating symptoms.

What Is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?

Acute pain is the most common. It starts quickly and is usually the result of a specific injury or aggravation like a fall or by lifting something heavy. It typically lasts for less than 6 weeks. Chronic pain lasts for more than 3 months and is much less common than acute pain. It is normally caused by poor posture, weak supporting muscles or some other underlying issue.

What Are the Causes of Back Pain?

There are many different causes of back pain. Mechanical problems with the back itself are often the issue and can include:

  • Disk breakdown (the fibro-cartilage between your spinal vertebrae)
  • Spasms
  • Tense muscles
  • Ruptured disks
  • Injuries from sprains, fractures, accidents and falls

Back pain can also occur with some conditions and diseases such as scoliosis, arthritis, spinal stenosis, pregnancy, kidney stones and a variety of infections. You're also at risk if you are overweight, smoke or are inactive. Fortunately, with a few changes, you can reduce or eliminate many of these latter risks.

How Is Back Pain Treated?

Always check with your doctor or physical therapist before attempting any kind of treatment for back pain. The treatment will be dependent on the type of pain that you have and what may have caused it in the first place. The last thing you want to do is something that can be counter to the healing process.

Often, acute injuries will work themselves out with enough rest. Exercise and surgery are normally not part of the program in these cases. Pain and inflammation can be managed with ice packs and either over-the-counter or prescription medications depending on the severity of the injury. Again, be sure to consult a physician.

For longer-term chronic pain, hot and/or cold packs can soothe sore, stiff backs. Heat reduces muscle spasms, and cold helps reduce swelling and numbs deep pain. These treatments don't fix the problem, but they can definitely help by offering some relief. Specific exercises are commonly prescribed to help strengthen affected and surrounding areas, in addition to pain and anti-inflammatory meds if required.

Some Helpful Tips on Preventing Back Pain at Work

The first step in determining what measures you may need to take, is a realistic assessment of your potential day-to-day risk. Workers most at risk for back pain engage in jobs that require frequent bending, lifting and twisting or involve long periods of standing or sitting. Once you figure out where the potential trouble areas may be, coming up with some specific fixes is easy.

Lifting Heavy Objects

This is probably one of the worst offenders. Follow these tips to decrease your risk of injury:

  • If you have to lift something that is too heavy, don't be a hero. Get help, use a dolly or split it into smaller loads.
  • Make sure your feet are at least shoulder-width apart so that you have a wide base of support
  • Stand as close to the object you're lifting as possible. Reaching increases the strain on your back. This also counts for carrying.
  • Bend at your knees, NOT at your waist.
  • Give your back support by contracting your abdominal muscles as you lift the object up or lower it down. Keeping your chin up also helps with your form.
  • Lift using your leg muscles, NOT your back. Keep movements smooth and steady.
  • Do NOT twist or bend forward as you are lifting up or carrying the object. If you have to change directions, slowly turn with your feet.
  • Take frequent breaks to rest and to stretch. Your back will be more vulnerable as you tire. At least once an hour, place your hands on your lower back and slowly arch backward.

Sitting on the Job

Sitting for hours at a time is a sure way to develop back pain. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Try and take regular breaks to stretch your legs throughout the day. Take trips to speak directly with colleagues, go to the printer, hit the water cooler or grab a coffee.
  • Support your lower back at all times. If you don't have a specially designed chair or lumbar support, a rolled towel or small pillow will do.
  • Posture counts. When seated, align your ears with your shoulders and keep your chin parallel to the floor. Also avoid leaning to one side and try to bend from the hips when you bend forward as opposed to rounding your back.
  • The purchase of a quality swivel chair is always a great investment. Make sure your chair has an adjustable seat, back-rest, arm rests and includes a tilt function.

Take Care of Your Body

Probably your most valuable piece of equipment (and hard to replace), your body can take a lot of punishment on the job. Follow these tips to help keep it in shape:

  • Get moving! Regular exercise can improve your posture, strengthen your back, increase your flexibility and help you lose weight. A program that includes aerobic activity (walking, swimming, cycling etc.), strength training (free weights, resistance bands, body weight) and stretching is best for overall fitness. You don't need to approach it like you're training for the Olympics - just do whatever is right for you.
  • Lose that belly. Excess pounds, especially around the middle, throw your body out of alignment and increase the burden on your back.
  • Stand tall. Maintaining proper posture absolutely helps to reduce the strain on your back.
  • Butt out. If you smoke, you might want to think about quitting. Research shows that smoking reduces blood flow to the spine and can contribute to back problems.
  • Get plenty of rest. As with most body-related issues, getting sufficient sleep, (ideally on your side and on a firm mattress) goes a long way in keeping you healthy.
  • What fuels you? A well-balanced diet, including plenty of fresh water, provides the vitamins, minerals and fluids necessary for good joint health.

Related Equipment

In addition to recognizing potential back pain hazards and generally taking care of yourself, there are a few pieces of everyday equipment that can make a big difference in helping to avoid injury.

Lumbar Back Braces

The back brace can provide great temporary relief for sore backs and are mandatory on many job sites as a preventative measure where lifting is required. They can be counted on as a valuable tool throughout the workday, but they won't solve the root cause of any discomfort you may have and shouldn't be over-used. These braces are not a replacement for proper health, safety and lifting techniques. There are different types available depending on the nature of what the job requires and the level of movement that you expect. It's also very important that the brace fit properly and that's why adjustable models are popular.

Seating Lumbar Supports

If your chair doesn't have a built-in lumber support, be sure to get a supplementary contoured cushion that helps to support the lumbar spine and maintain proper posture.

Anti-Fatigue Mats

Perfect for workstations or for areas where static standing is required, anti-fatigue mats greatly reduce impact and provide cushioning for your joints and supporting muscles.

Footwear

Often not considered when it comes to reducing back pain, having a good pair of boots or shoes can contribute greatly to maintaining comfort and avoiding injury. Well-made footwear provides proper support, skeletal alignment and reduces joint impact.

Business owners, management personnel and front-line workers need to understand the risks to back health and the impact that it can have on lost days and overall productivity. Luckily, the odds can be stacked in your favor with a little bit of guidance and a healthy dose of prevention.

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