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Back Injury Prevention Tips and Techniques for All Workers

With Good Choices You Can Prevent Workplace Back Injuries

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Apply these safety tips and techniques when your job requires lifting and carrying, to prevent potential discomfort, aggravation, strains, sprains and injury.

Warehouse worker that has back pain from lifting heavy boxes.

Lifting heavy items and manual materials handling are the leading causes of on the job back injuries. Overexertion and cumulative trauma are the biggest factors in shoulder and back injuries that often result in missed workdays.

Back disorders can develop gradually as a result of repetitive activity over time or can occur because of a single traumatic event. Because back injuries are sometimes slow and progressive, the condition is often ignored until the symptoms become acute, often resulting in disabling injury.

OSHA General Duty Clause 5(a)(1) Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.

OSHA does not have a standard which sets limits on how much weight a person may lift or carry. It is important that employers provide time, resources and solutions to employees that will allow them to lift and carry required loads safely. It is every employee’s responsibility to practice proper lifting techniques while at work and to ask for help when needed.

Worker lifting heavy work materials while wearing work gloves.

According to OSHA, lifting loads heavier than about 50 pounds will increase a worker’s risk of injury, but the difficulty with assessing the risk associated with lifting or carrying at work is that weight alone does not determine the risk for a potential injury.

Back injuries result from exceeding the capability of the muscles, tendons, discs, or the cumulative effect of several contributors, including:

  • reaching, twisting or bending while lifting
  • heavy lifting or lifting with forceful movement
  • repetitive lifting of heavy and/or awkward items
  • poor posture
  • working while bent over for an extended period
  • bad body mechanics while lifting, pushing or pulling
  • stressful work activities
  • inefficient task or workstation design
  • fatigue
  • vibration
OSHA Standard 1926.21(b)(2) says that the employer shall instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and the regulations applicable to his work environment to control or eliminate any hazards or other exposure to illness or injury.

Using a proper lifting and carrying technique every time is essential to back injury prevention. Carrying loads on one shoulder, under an arm, or in one hand, creates uneven pressure on the spine. Bending at the waist to lift or set down anything puts tremendous pressure on the vertebrae as the lower back has to support your body weight and the weight of the load.

If you are just “moving a few supplies from here to there”, or you need to manually move heavier materials, it’s always important to plan your lift and the route you will carry the items.

Familiarize yourself with what you are lifting. Be aware of the general size, shape and weight. Examine what you will be lifting for potential hazards like sharp corners or slippery spots. Decide how you will hold the item to lift and carry. Look for handles or adequate handholds and determine if you need to wear gloves.

Plan how you will perform the lift. Determine whether or not it’s safe to lift on your own. Ask for help, if needed. Walk the planned route to make sure the pathway is clear by checking for slip, trip and fall hazards like safety cones, floor holes, loose flooring, poor lighting, spills or extension cords. Remove any obstacles you find or plan an alternate path. Know exactly where you will set the load down.

When you are ready to perform the lift, get as close as possible and position yourself so your feet are near the base of the item and center yourself in front of the load. Your feet should be spread shoulder width apart.

Bend at your knees and squat down, keeping your back as straight as possible. Get a good grip. Do not lift or carry items using only 1-2 fingers, use your whole hand to hold.

Grasp the load firmly with both arms and slowly stand up by straightening your legs, pushing with your leg muscles, while maintaining a straight posture with your back. If you can’t lift slowly, you can’t lift safely. Keep your elbows close to your sides and keep the load close to your body.

  • Do not twist your body as you lift.
  • Do not jerk or snatch the load as you lift.
  • Don’t bend at the waist to lift or set down a load.
  • Don't stack things up so high that you can't see directly in front of you.
  • If you begin to lose your grip, set the load down safely and reassess before you try the lift again.

If you must turn while holding or carrying, turn your feet so your whole body turns. Do not turn at the waist. Keep your shoulders in line with your hips as you move.

If you must set the item down below waist level, then follow the same procedures in reverse order. Bend at the knees, not at the hips.

If you are lifting with a partner, the same safe lifting techniques apply, with one person on either side of the heavy load. Communicate clearly so you both lift and set down at the same time.

Warehouse worker using a pallet jack to move heavy items instead of carrying them.

When lifting one load that is heavier than 50 pounds, use at least two people for the lift. If carrying smaller materials that may be tricky to hold onto all together, put them into a box so there’s only one thing to carry, and not several items at once. If items are packed into heavy boxes or containers, consider repacking them so they weigh less.

Do not lift and carry more than you can safely handle. Divide the load to make it lighter. Do not ask a co-worker to add more items on top of something else you have already lifted. Avoid rolling spools because once they are in motion it may take a great deal of force to stop them.

To lift materials that have a smooth, flat surface, consider using a suction device that provides a temporary handle that makes lifting easier. Avoid lifting heavy items over your head to attempt to place them on a rack. Instead place these heavier items on a lower shelf to make it easier for future retrieval.

If you feel fatigued, set the load down and rest. Do not let yourself get so fatigued that you cannot set the item down safely. Use a hand truck, pallet jack or forklift to lift and transport heavier items. Pushing is usually better than pulling. Pushing will allow you to use large muscle groups and apply more force to the load, while pulling has a greater risk of strain and injury.

While wearing work gloves, a worker is removing a long bundle of wood from a pile.

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