Prevent Back Injuries with 4 Simple Fixes
According to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), back pain is the largest cause of disability in the world, leading to more than 264 million lost work days each year. Back pain can contribute to billions of dollars of lost wages and decreased productivity.
With more than 80% of Americans experiencing back pain at some point in their lives, it might seem like an inevitable problem you have to hurdle in your life. However, ACA reports that most cases of back pain are not caused by serious conditions or injuries, and most people with lower back pain recover. In many cases, back pain is caused by poor posture, obesity, or stress, which causes daily movements to irritate or damage bones, joints, ligaments, or muscles in your back. Thus, back pain is not inevitable. In fact, you can take steps to protect yourself from back injuries by addressing four factors in your workplace.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, a good posture is one in which your body weight is evenly distributed. By maintaining good posture, you keep the curves of your spine in proper alignment. Good posture puts less stress on your joints, resulting in less back pain over the long term.
When standing, you might imagine a straight line passing vertically through your body. Imagine a cord lifting your breastbone and rib cage up and elongating your neck. Model your stance after a dancer or ice skater, not soldier at attention: graceful, but not strained.
If you sit at a desk for long stretches of time, you might fall into a poor posture. It's important to stretch and shift positions frequently. Generally, a good sitting posture includes:
- Head balanced over shoulders
- Shoulders relaxed
- Forearms and thighs parallel to the floor
- Lower back pressed against the back of the chair
- Feet settled on the floor or a footrest
- Wrists straight when typing
One cause of back pain is repetitive movements performed over a long stretch of time. To mitigate the risk of low back pain from this kind of “wear and tear,” take frequent breaks and spread out your responsibilities throughout the day. If your job requires you to perform both heavy and light tasks, alternate them throughout the day. This will reduce fatigue and give your muscles a chance to relax.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), body weight can contribute to back pain. Keep your back healthy by maintaining a healthy weight. Eating right and exercising is a great place to start. NINDS also recommends maintaining a sufficient daily intake of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D to promote bone growth.
In addition, stress can also affect your muscles. If you feel frustrated, anxious, or stressed, you might feel your muscles tense up. Performing heavy tasks with tensed muscles can lead to more injuries. Give yourself enough time to complete tasks, build de-stressing time into your schedule, and work to resolve any conflicts that could stress you out.
Warm up and stretch before you exercise or perform a strenuous task.
Making "common-sense" changes to your workplace can also help to prevent back injuries. Think about all the things you interact with during your daily routine at work. For one, the shoes on your feet should be comfortable and ideally have adequate arch support.
As you settle into your desk, you might notice that your chair is uncomfortable; check if it was designed with ergonomics in mind. If your chair does not have proper lumbar support, consider installing a cushion or using a towel or small pillow against the back to support your spine.
When storing items, keep the most frequently-used items in an easily-accessible location. Don't place them too high, too low, or too far back on a shelf to be easily reached. In general, a safe lifting zone is knee-level or above. For anything that must be stored below knee level, allow room to bend your knees before lifting. For anything stored above shoulder level, use a stool or ladder to access it.
When transporting items for any reason, use rigid containers that can be held close to your body. Balance contents in their containers so that they don't tip when you try to lift them. Use handles to keep a strong grip on items. If handles are not available, consider using slings or grips.
Keep spaces open enough for the entire body to turn. Regulate work temperatures to stay between -13°F and 82°F. Strenuous activity in temperatures above 104°F or below -31°F is dangerous and should be avoided.
Your workplace should provide training in how to properly lift according to the demands of your job. However, here are some general lifting rules to follow:
- Warm up your muscles by stretching and doing light exercises before lifting.
- Stand close to the object. Face the direction you plan to move.
- Establish a wide stance and plant your feet.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles and tuck your chin into your chest.
- Bend your legs - not your waist - to lift items below knee level.
- Keep your arms straight and initiate the lift with your body weight.
- Lift the object close your body, smoothly and without jerking.
- Avoid twisting and bending while lifting.
- If you can slide it instead of lifting it, do. Push, don't pull heavy loads.
If you're not sure you can handle the load, don't try to lift it. A good rule of thumb is that if the item is more than ⅓ or ½ your body weight, it's too heavy. If you have to hold your breath to lift it, it's probably too heavy for you to handle on your own. Ask a coworker to help with any big, bulky, or heavy loads.
Similarly, if you experience pain or discomfort while lifting, report it to your supervisor so that working conditions can be corrected.
Back injuries that occur in the workplace may involve more than lost time. They can also include medical care expenses, prescriptions, and lost wages. If you own a business, you might be interested in keeping your workplace safe and secure. Members of the NJM family get free access to a library of loss prevention tools. NJM has provided workers' compensation insurance for over a century. Get a quote today.
Back Pain Facts and Statistics. American Chiropractic Association. Arlington, VA: American Chiropractic Association. acatoday.org
Posture and Back Health. Harvard Health Publishing. Boston, MA: Harvard Medical School. health.harvard.org
Ergonomics: Back Injury Prevention. Vice President for Research: Environmental Health & Safety. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia. ehs.virginia.edu
Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Bethesda, MD: NIH Neurological Institute. www.ninds.nih.gov
Back Injury Prevention (2016). Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. www.ccohs.ca