It was in 1991, that a study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conclude that back injuries and related disorders affect as many as 600,000 employees each year. This results in an added economic burden of $50 billion per annum!
Ever since this study, the frequency of back injuries has only increased as a result of a substantial increase in the average age of the workforce.
Consequently, the medical costs of treating the injured or afflicted employees and the administrative cost of offering relief and arranging for replacement of these employees have skyrocketed, thus proving to be rather cumbersome for both – the healthcare sector as well as the administrative sector.
So, what causes back injuries?
As per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a whopping one million workers experience back injuries every year, with 75% of back injuries occurring during or as a result of performing lifting tasks.
Well, more often than not, back injuries, especially disorders are a result of cumulative trauma a sustained by the back muscles due to repetitive actions such as heavy lifting, carrying loads over distances, long duration lifting, etc. In most cases, the injuries related to the back involve the muscle, ligament, vertebrae, and discs, either individually or in combination.
In the initial stages, back injuries such as muscle pulls may seem ineligible due to lower pain levels. However, over the years such repeated trauma to the back may make the symptoms more acute, and can even result in long term disabilities.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. There are also instances wherein improper lifting techniques, or sudden lifting of heavy loads can result in an acute injury. That being said, even such injuries are caused as a result of weakened musculoskeletal support mechanism over the years, combined by the one defining incident of wrong/heavy lifting.
Consequences of Back Injuries
While back injuries do not lead to any work related deaths, there is no doubt about the fact that such injuries can result in a substantial amount of human pain and suffering, need for constant medical aid, and dependence on others for day to day tasks.
On an administrative level, these injuries may result in loss of productivity, increased cost of hiring and rehiring, and the spike in expenses associated with employee insurance. Moreover, the health administration of the nation also suffers due to the added onus of compensating for and caring for patients who have endured serious physical harm as a result of not following proper lifting techniques at the workplace.
All of these costs combined clearly indicate the importance of following safe lifting techniques in a bid to avert the recognized hazards related to back sprains and sustained injuries.
Leading causes of Back Disorders
Simply put, back injury is a direct result of exceeding the capability of the back muscles, tendons and ligaments – that too repeatedly. Some of the most common ways in which the ability of these muscles and ligaments are exceeded include –
- Reaching while lifting
- Poor posture in general life as well as while pushing, pulling or lifting heavy objects
- Need for repititive lifting of objects, equipment and other things
- Improper design of workplace furniture
- Twisting, bending or poor footing while lifting
- Lifting with a jerky or forceful movement
Signs and Symptoms of Back Disorders
Some of the most prominent signs of back disorders include –
- Shooting, burning or stabbing sensation in back muscles
- Pain that radiates down to either of the legs
- Pain when standing up from a seated position
- Pain while standing, even for a relatively short time span
- Decreased mobility
- Muscle spasms of either side of the spine
- Bruising or swelling of the back
Back injuries when sustained can have an adverse impact on the quality of a worker’s life and is unsurprisingly one of the leading causes of workers to miss and even quit work.
OSHA Guidelines for Proper Lifting Procedures
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has provided with measures that can help prevent injuries related to lifting. These measures are categorized under two distinct heads –
Engineering Controls for Safe Lifting Techniques
These are used to design the workstation or the area of work such that all lifting hazards are substantially minimized. Some of the engineering controls suggested by OSHA are –
- Limiting force exertion by using a device or equipment to lift and reposition heavy objects.
- Limiting exertion by reducing the weight of individual loads
- Repositioning workstations and structures to eliminate the need for long or excessive reach
- Deploying diverging conveyors off a main line to reduce strain cause by repititive tasks
- Redesigning tools to enable neutral postures.
Administrative Controls for Safe Lifting Techniques
As the name suggests, administrative controls are all about the administration training the workers in a way that enables them to function flawlessly and more importantly with utmost safety. Some of the administrative controls suggested by OSHA include –
- Mandatorily involving two people when lifting heavy loads
- Establishing rotations such that the duration and frequency of exertion while lifting as well as assumption of awkward postures are minimized
- Hiring “floaters” to provide periodic breaks to regular workers
- Using and maintain pneumatic and power tools
In addition to the aforementioned controls, OSHA also enlists the proper technique for safe lifting of heavy objects.
To begin with, OSHA states, that workers should lift with a good sense and only if they are confident enough of their physical ability to lift the load. In case they need, they should definitely seek the assistance of a fellow worker, or simply use any available mechanical aid.
If the worker decides on lifting the load themselves, they should do so, while following the below mentioned measures –
- Stand close to the base of the load that you intend on lifting – this will ensure a better angle for you to pick up the load
- Squat down such that you are facing the object squarely – this will add lifting strength to your back, as the position warrants that your arms, legs and back work in tandem with each other
- Now, further move close to the item – this will ensure that your backbone assists as a supporting column when you lift the load
- Next, get a good grip and tilt the load on its edge such that the center of the weight is at the highest possible point from the ground
- Now, while keeping your feet pointed at the load, keep your back straight and grasp the load with both arms, simultaneously standing up along with the load
- Finally, stand in an upright position keeping your stomach muscles tight, and walk in your chosen direction
- If you need to turn while carrying the load, make sure you do this by turning your feet and not your upper body (and/or back)
- Make sure you are not carrying loads for long periods of time
The key here is to keep your back vertical and look straight ahead, as much as possible, to ensure the minimization of any potential hazards.
In case you are required to place the object at a position below your waist height, make sure to follow the above instructions in reverse order.
And, before we forget to mention, always remember to bend at your knees and not your back.
One of the most significant benefits of providing training on proper lifting techniques to employees is that they come to know the right posture to life, while also understanding the dangers of overexertion. Moreover, the training will enable them to plan ahead if and when they need to lift heavier loads. In addition to enabling them to lift safely, the proper lifting technique will also help them do their task with improved efficiency.
In a bid to evaluate the lifting techniques used by a worker, the employer must consider the following variables –
- Frequency of lifting
- Bulk of loads
- Duration and type of lifting and carrying
- General physical fitness of the worker
NIOSH Work Practice Guide for Manual Lifting
In addition to OSHA guidelines for back safety, it can also benefit you to read through the work practice guide formulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It enlists the following –
- Lifting is a two-handed task and the load must be evenly distributed between both hands
- Lifting must be smooth, in front of the body such that the hands are at the same height or level
- Manual lifting should be such that the moderate-width loads do not substantially exceed the body width of the lifter
- Handling activities including repetitive tasks such as holding, pushing, pulling, carrying, walking or climbing should be kept to a minimal
- Workplace temperature should be maintained between 66-77°F, while the humidty levels should be between 35-50% in order to minimize the risk of injury
- One handed lifting, lifting while sitting or kneeling and lifting unstable loads should be avoided at all costs
- The shoe sole to floor surface coupling must be such that it allows for for firm footing.
- Lifting and lowering assumes the same level of risk for low back injuries.
In addition to the OSHA mentioned guidelines, we at Enviro Safety Products strongly recommend that employers offer the following –
- Offering a footrest, rail and/or height-adjustable chairs or stools to the employees to rest between lifting tasks
- Providing resilient floor mats to ensure minimum impact
- Offering ergonomic chairs with proper adjustable lumbar support
- Avoiding any and all activity that requires bending and reaching in seated postures.
As far as the workers are concerned, this is what are occupational safety and health experts have to say –
“While all of this may sound too overwhelming to be put into practice, a great way to ensure that you lift safely every single time is to practice in accordance of the above guidelines, consistently for a week. That being done, you will come to notice that the right way to lift is also the easiest way to do so. Not only does it not put any added strain on your back, it also ensures that you can lift comparatively heavier loads almost seamlessly.”