Back Injuries

The Top Workplace Safety Problem

by Bill Grieb

Preventing injuries is a major workplace safety challenge. More than one million workers suffer back injuries each year, and back injuries account for one in five workplace injuries or illnesses.

One-fourth of all compensation indemnity claims involve back injuries, costing industry billions of dollars — not to mention the pain and suffering borne by employees.

Although lifting, placing, carrying, holding, and lowering are involved in manual materials handling (the principal cause of compensable work injuries), a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey shows that four in five of these injuries were to the lower back, and that three in four occurred while the employee was lifting. No approach has been found for totally eliminating back injuries caused by lifting, but a substantial portion can be prevented by an effective control program and ergonomic design of work tasks.

Administrative Controls:

  • Strength testing of existing workers; one study showed that discouraging the assign- ment of workers to jobs that exceed their strength capabilities can prevent up to one-third of work-related injuries
  • Training employees to employ lifting techniques that place minimum stress on the lower back
  • Physical conditioning or stretching programs to reduce the risk of muscle strain

Engineering Controls:

Reduction in the size or weight of the object lifted. The parameters include maximum allowable weights for a given set of task requirements, the compactness of a package, the presence of handles, and the stability of the package being handled.

  • Adjusting the height of a pallet or shelf. Lifting that occurs below knee level or above shoulder level is more strenuous than lifting between these limits.
  • Obstructions that prevent an employee’s body contact with the object being lifted also generally increase the risk of injury.
  • Installation of mechanical aids such as pneumatic lifts, conveyors, or automated materials-handling equipment.

In a recent study it was determined that up to one-third of compensable back injuries could be prevented through better job design (ergonomics). Other factors include frequency of lifting, duration of lifting activities, and type of lifting, as well as individual variables such as age, sex, body size, state of health, and general physical fitness.

Rules for Lifting

  1. Size up the load; observe the position of the load.
  2. Carefully look around for any surrounding hazards.
  3. If you need help, GET IT.
  4. Stand as close to the load as possible.
  5. Grip the load securely. Injuries often occur when loads slip or fall because of an inadequate grip.
  6. Face in the direction of the lift with knees and hips bent. Tighten abdominal muscles, take a deep breath, and lift.
  7. Keep the weight as close to the body as possible. Hold elbows in close to the body.
  8. Use leg and hip muscles, not your back, to lift.
  9. Bend hips and knees while lifting, keeping your back straight.
  10. If it is necessary to turn while lifting, move your feet instead of twisting the trunk of your body.
  11. Watch for protruding nails, sharp edges, and other dangerous surfaces of the object being lifted.
  12. Keep fingers away from pinch points.
  13. Wear protective gloves.
  14. Use hand trucks and other appropriate equipment to help lift.
  15. If the object is overhead, grip it with your palms up. Lower the object slowly. Keep the object as close to your body as possible. Watch out for any protrusions.

Rules for Carrying

  1. Keep your back as straight as possible.
  2. Keep the load as close to your body as possible.
  3. Center the load over your pelvis.
  4. Put the load down by bending at the hips and knees with your back straight.
  5. If the load is too heavy, GET HELP.
  6. If more than one person is carrying the load, allow one person to be the leader. The leader should coordinate carrying and timing of movements.

Rules for Using Ladders

  1. Make sure safety feet are in good condition.
  2. Make sure rungs are unpainted and clean.
  3. Do not use metal or aluminum ladders in electrical areas.
  4. Only one person should stand on a ladder at a time.
  5. Make sure the ladder is tied at top and properly positioned.
  6. Keep hands free, use belt attachments for carrying tools, etc.
  7. Never overreach.
  8. Keep danger tags available, and use them to mark defective ladders.
  9. Never use stools, chairs, boxes, etc. in place of a ladder.

Preventing Slips, Falls, and Other Accidents

  1. Make sure lighting is adequate.
  2. Avoid congestion and overcrowding in a work area.
  3. Make sure all materials and equipment are properly stacked and stored.
  4. Make sure exits are adequate. Check daily to ensure that exits are never blocked.
  5. Keep hands free especially on ladders and scaffolding. Use equipment belts and safety tie-downs as appropriate.
  6. Report any unsafe condition caused by non-employees, such as contractors.
  7. Keep all aisles and stairways clear.
  8. Maintain a safe clearance for equipment through aisles and doorways.
  9. Walk only in approved walkways.
  10. Be especially careful in strange environments — such as a manufacturing plant would be to an office worker.

Reprinted with permission from SAFETY INFORMATION CURRENTS, Vol. IV, Number 6, June 1995.