Back Health & Safety

Back pain comes in second only to stress as a leading cause of sickness absences from work in Britain. In addition, 80% of the population suffers from back pain at some point in their lives.

In the United States, 1 million workers suffer from back pain yearly, accounting for 20% of all workplace absences and second only to the common cold.

While injuries and accidents do contribute to the problem, 85% of back pain in the workplace is actually related to incorrect posture, incorrect lifting techniques, excessive weight and lack of exercise.

Correct Posture

Back pain happens to both manual as well as sedentary workers. And much of the back pain for both groups is often caused by poor posture. Incorporate the following advice for helping correct and prevent back pain caused by incorrect posture.

  • Learn about ergonomics to ensure a healthy working environment.
  • Make sure chairs and work areas are adjusted to proper height for reducing back strain.
  • Take regular breaks to stretch stiff muscles.
  • Use proper sitting & standing techniques.
  • Wear proper shoes & use good posture when standing for long periods.

Correct Lifting Technique

back-painThe most common back injuries in the workplace are sprains, strains and herniated discs. While age does contribute, the problem largely stems from incorrect lifting technique. Employ the following tips to reduce back injury caused by improper lifting.

  • Ask for help with heavy objects.
  • Hold objects close to the body when lifting.
  • Avoid twisting when lifting and carrying heavy objects.
  • Use leg muscles to lift instead of back muscles.
  • Lift slowly, staying in control without jerking.

Healthy Lifestyles

While posture and correct lifting go a long way in preventing back pain, living a healthy lifestyle can go even further with regard to reducing and even eliminating time off work due not only to back pain but to other health issues as well. Consider the following healthy lifestyle tips for reducing back pain & increasing overall health and wellness.

  • Improve back flexibility and strength with stretching exercises.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Remember that a good night’s sleep allows for necessary repairs to your body.
  • Pay attention to warning signs and seek treatment immediately.
  • Quit smoking & control weight to increase blood flow and reduce strain.

Additional Resources

While back pain may be a leading cause of workplace absences, there’s no shortage of solutions for reducing these absences. Use the above tips as a starting point for improved back health, and continue educating yourself by reading some of the abundance of information available for back healthy and safety in the workplace. The following list of articles will help educate you on back health & safety in the workplace.

Understanding Ergonomics, Part II

Extreme Ergonomic Workstation

You don't need to resort to extreme measures to implement good ergonomic practices.

In “Understanding Ergonomics, Part I,” ergonomics was defined and the problem of a lack of ergonomics was discussed. In addition, the symptoms of repetitive strain injury were detailed along with the jobs at highest risk for such injuries. In this article, the benefits of and tips for implementing ergonomics along with creating a plan for assessing a space for ergonomic implementation will be explained. This article also discusses situations outside of the workplace that can benefit from implementing ergonomics.

Benefits of Implementing Ergonomics
Implementing ergonomics helps prevent repetitive strain injuries.  And as those injuries are reduced and in most cases eliminated or prevented altogether, additional benefits are seen. Those benefits include:

1.)    Increased Efficiency: Ergonomics allows workers to move at their most efficient level, which leads to workers who are healthier and pain-free. An efficient, healthy worker tends to produce better quality work.

2.)    Increased productivity: Efficient movement tasks leads to increased productivity. In fact, a 1986 study by the Army Corps of Engineers showed a 20.6% improvement in employee productivity one year after ergonomic furniture was installed.

3.)    Increased morale: Workers not dealing with headaches and sore muscles and especially with more severe repetitive strain issues and injuries caused by an uncomfortable working environment tend to be happier and their productivity naturally increases.

4.)    Increased work quality: As workers are more comfortable and able to work more efficiently, the quality of work increases as well.

5.)    Reduced turnover & absenteeism: Dan MacLeod, one of the most experienced professional ergonomists in North America notes that “one reason why workers are absent is that they are experiencing early stages of a musculoskeletal disorder.” He goes on to say that, “work that hurts doesn’t exactly encourage people to come every day.”

For more benefits of implementing ergonomics, see “How to Increase Profits with Ergonomics: 20 Ways to Cut Costs, plus One Way to Increase Revenues” by Dan MacLeod.

Tips for Maximizing Ergonomics
A variety of tips and techniques exist for maximizing ergonomics, and in most cases the best implementation strategy is not only job specific but specific to the individual as well. However, there are a few general tips that all individuals can consider, especially when beginning to implement ergonomics. The following tips provide a good stepping stone for working toward a larger and more comprehensive implementation of ergonomics.

1.)    Arrange Your Workspace: An ergonomic workspace is arranged to fit a worker’s body. In addition, tasks that are completed the most often should have supplies and equipment for that task within easy reach. Avoid reaching, twisting and poor posture on a regular basis.

2.)    Use Good Work Habits: Using variety in type of movements and tasks, employing good posture, and increasing efficiency through placement of supplies and equipment are all good work habits that will help increase the benefits of ergonomics.

3.)    Incorporate Regular Exercise & Stretching: Exercising the eyes as well as stretching the body regularly add to the benefits of ergonomics.

Ergonomics Assessments
Ergonomics does not have a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, a situation analysis (formal or informal) must be performed to determine what will be the most effective ergonomic approaches to implement.

For larger companies with deeper pockets, hiring an outside consultant to assess ergonomics in the workplace is a great option. For smaller companies and individuals, learning how to assess an environment for ergonomic adjustments can be extremely useful.  An assessment such as this ergonomics checklist to make the work environment more ergonomic can be an effective way for anyone, regardless of resources, to begin implementing positive ergonomic changes.

For both individuals and companies, checking out the industry-specific guidelines provided by OSHA and by the CDC can also prove helpful in implementing ergonomics in the workplace.

Ergonomics Outside of Work
Ergonomics is not something to be considered just for the workplace. Frequent travel as well as many tasks in the home can also benefit from ergonomics. Taking the time to consider “Business Traveling Ergonomic Tips” as well as “Home Ergonomics” can go a long way in making an individual healthier and happier in a more rounded way than just workplace ergonomics alone.

Understanding Ergonomics, Part I

Defining Ergonomics

Worker injured from poor ergonomics

Proper ergonomics will help prevent many repetitive strain injuries.

Ergonomics is the science that “addresses human performance and well-being in relation to various types of jobs, equipment, tools and environments.” In other words, it’s the study of the way humans work.

The CDC states that “The goal of ergonomics is to reduce stress and eliminate injuries and disorders associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture, and repeated tasks. This is accomplished by designing tasks, work spaces, controls, displays, tools, lighting, and equipment to fit the employee´s physical capabilities and limitations.”

Understanding the Problem

According to the US Department of Labor and Statistics, “in 2008 work-related musculoskeletal disorders – like nerve damage from typing and injuries caused by improper lifting – accounted for almost 30 percent of all workers’ compensation claims. That’s 317,440 claims to be exact, with each claim resulting in a median of 10 days out of work for injured parties and costing state fund employers millions of dollars.”

Musculoskeletal disorders are problems occurring in the soft tissue of the body such as muscles, tendons, blood vessels, ligaments and nerves. Common injuries to these tissues caused by lack of or insufficient ergonomics include back pain, chronic soreness, carpel tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and hernias. Injuries to soft tissues often occur not from improper methods or even from accidents but actually from repetitive tasks involving common movements. For example, a job involving typing all or most of the day can eventually result in carpel tunnel syndrome because an individual is doing the same type of movement for a long period of time.

Symptoms of and Treatment for Repetitive Strain

General symptoms of repetitive strain disorders include pain and/or discomfort that fails to recede after a couple of days, swelling, stiffness, tight muscles, inflexibility, numbness, tingling, a feeling of pins and needles and weakness. Ergonomics can help prevent and treat these disorders. Treatment of more advanced cases can include rest, braces, physical therapy and even surgery. But the earlier ergonomics are employed, the less likely these treatments measures will be needed, especially the more invasive ones such as surgery.

Jobs at Highest Risk for Ergonomics Problems

Jobs at highest risk for the repetitive strain injuries that ergonomics can help to prevent and alleviate are ones that have one or more of a variety of risk factors. Those factors include jobs where a worker is subjected to the following:

  • High force such as when lifting/carrying or pushing/pulling a heavy load.
  • High repetition such as when one does the same type of work for the duration of a day or when one continually uses the same limbs or muscle groups. Examples include pushing a button constantly throughout the day and standing in one place or sitting upright without back support for an extended period time.
  • Awkward posture such as when wrists are bent for using a tool, the back is bent forward or twisted, or the neck is bent up, down or to the side.
  • Overhead work where arms are held above shoulder height.
  • Static work where tools are held steady or an individual must sit for long periods of time.
  • Vibration when operating machinery (drill, grinder, etc.) or driving equipment over rough terrain (dump truck drivers for example).
  • Contact stress caused when the end of a tool or perhaps a piece of machinery constantly pushes against a part of the body. (Examples include using a screwdriver for long periods of time.)
  • Constant exposure to cold such as foodservice workers who handle frozen food or working in a cold environment such as construction workers who work outside in winter.

Repetitive strain injury is a significant workplace issue that companies are continually forced to address in one way or another. To help in that endeavor, stay tuned for Part II next week where implementing and maximizing ergonomics will be discussed along with applying ergonomics outside of a typical workplace environment.