Back injuries are a major concern in workplaces around the world, and with good reason—even minor back pain can alter a person’s quality of life, and can dramatically affect workplace productivity and morale. If it worsens, there are also compensation costs to consider should the worker be forced to take time off.
The best offense for workplace back injury is a good defense, and you can reduce the potential risks of back pain in the workforce by taking a close look at some of the major causes.
Insufficient training at the get-go
Sometimes it’s assumed that everyone has an intuitive sense of how to lift and carry objects, and how much can be lifted safely. But that’s not always the case. After all, back injuries are the second-most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office in America.
Ergonomic issues are often more complicated than they appear and, in the end, lifting technique is a safety procedure—and as such, it should be mandatory training during employee orientation. No employer assumes that just because we have fingers, we’ll know how to use them around a table saw. By the same token, just because employees have used their backs all their lives, doesn’t mean they’ll know about how to lift, so be sure to provide back safety training to all new employees.
Improper lifting technique
Proper back safety training is important, but it’s not enough to provide the training just once—knowledge can fade over time, and bad habits can slowly erode their posture and technique.
Constant reinforcement of back safety skills is required, which includes coaching people on the proper lifting technique whenever a supervisor sees it being done incorrectly. Rotating reminders about one aspect of safe lifting can also avoid back injuries on the job without being too repetitive. One week, encourage workers to lift with their legs and tighten their cores when carrying a heavy object. The following week’s reminders could focus on holding objects close to the body or maintaining the back’s natural curve.
But you need to keep in mind that even though there are numerous benefits, there are also additional challenges that come with frequent reminders. Benefits include building knowledge to habit strength and keeping risk top of mind. But if the repetition is literally the same message in the same format over and over again, people can easily tune out the message.
Once you’ve given them the knowledge and you see them applying it in their work, you need to shift your messaging to help them understand that even though they know how to lift, their state of mind and growing complacency could cause them to ignore proper techniques in a moment of haste, crisis or weariness.
Skewed perception of risk
If employees are required to lift things regularly then they might become desensitized to just how much effort they are exerting on a consistent basis. And once this happens, they’re more likely to make mistakes that will get them hurt—like repeatedly twisting or rotating the spine while carrying something heavy, or forgetting to take frequent stretch breaks.
To prevent this, workers need to be reminded of the risks associated with every individual lifting job and should receive frequent refreshers on what their lifting limit is and how (and why) to pay attention to poor posture. Alternating between physically demanding and less demanding tasks will also help to construct a more balanced work day, and could help to combat complacency.
Employers should also provide a schedule that allows workers to listen to their bodies, incorporating breaks into their work day and allowing a few minutes between jobs for people to stretch and relieve tension.
Frustration and rushing
Sometimes, tight deadlines and long days can cause workers to feel frustrated and rushed. These states of mind and other human factors can influence whether a worker chooses to use proper lifting technique on the job. There’s a reason why many injuries occur when employees are hurrying to finish work or are nearing the end of a strenuous day. In these moments, back posture is often the last thing on their mind.
There is a direct correlation between what workers are thinking about and how likely they are to suffer an injury. Few companies are able to eliminate frustration, rushing and other dangerous mental states, so it’s important to extend back safety training to include states of mind that can cause workers to forget or ignore their safe lifting training.
At the end of the day, workers must be self-aware and understand how to do their job safely. By giving them the tools to recognize the factors that create the potential for back injuries in the workplace, EHS professionals can train, communicate with, and support workers to prevent back injuries from occurring.
Making the painful case for prevention
Unless a worker has had a significant back injury before and felt the excruciating pain for themselves, they may not realize the debilitating outcomes they are risking when they don’t follow proper lifting techniques consistently.
Workers must not only understand but really think about how it will feel to suffer from a severe acute back injury or chronic, recurring back pain. Once they hurt their back for the first time they will be much more likely to injure it again in the future and will likely struggle with flare-ups for the rest of their lives. Make sure they understand that this can severely limit their ability to do even basic tasks like getting out of bed or a chair let alone play their favorite sport or partake in activities with their kids.
Tell detailed stories of back pain (if you can speak from your own experience) or poll workers to find someone who has suffered from back issues and have them share their experience. Stories help people connect with the topic on an emotional level in ways that simply stating the facts can’t. Most people know the risk they’re taking when they muscle a couch up the stairs or push through a nagging pain in their lower back because they think they can manage it. Having heard a nightmarish story or two is an effective way to remind them of the outcome possibilities and persuade them to re-think their approach in the moment.