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September 27, 2004
A Million Reasons to Care About Back Injuries

With more than one million back injuries in the workplace each year, prevention should be a major focus of your safety training--and not just for workers in materials-handling jobs. While it's true that a leading cause of back injuries is overexertion--such as improperly lifting a heavy object--it's not the only cause. Other major reasons for disabling back pain are related to the long-term effects of doing a job, including:

  • Heavy physical work of any kind
  • Awkward postures required to do a job
  • "Whole body vibration"--for example, operating a jackhammer or heavy equipment such as a crane
  • "Static posture"--being required to sit in one position for an extended period of time

Clearly, teaching proper lifting techniques is very important--but it's still only part of the answer.

Why It Matters...
  • Back pain accounts for about 25 percent of all workers' compensation payments--totaling nearly $10 billion per year.
  • In a recent year, there were nearly 300,000 back injuries resulting in lost workdays, of which 89 percent were in materials-handling jobs.
  • Back injuries are the leading cause of disability for workers younger than the age of 45.

Ask employees for their own solutions. A complete back safety program will also look for ways to reduce long-term effects by educating employees about the possible causes--and asking them to contribute to the solutions. Workplace safety studies find that injuries and accidents are often greatly reduced when employees and management work in partnership. If back injuries are a persistent problem in your workplace, form a task force to take a closer look. Implementing just one good idea can more than pay for itself in terms of reducing lost-time injuries and workers' comp costs.

Substitution works. One company used a safety team to reduce employee back injuries by 57 percent and lower related workers' compensation costs by 71 percent. How? The team first identified specific causes of the injuries, then developed ways to avoid them--primarily by substituting mechanical devices for manual lifting. So encourage employees to use mechanical devices--hand trucks, conveyors, pneumatic lifts, etc.--whenever possible, instead of their own arms, legs, and backs to lift and carry heavy objects. And if substitution isn't feasible in a given situation, two or more people should team up for a difficult lift.

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