by Carol R. Wynn, BSN, RN, COHC, CEAS
Occupational Health Nurse

Occupational back injuries account for greater than one million injuries each year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Such injuries can result in lost time, reduced productivity, increased demands on other workers, costs for medical treatment and insurance premiums and adverse effects on the quality of life for the person affected. Because of this alarming number of back injuries and the detrimental effects for both the employee and employer, prevention is key, along with awareness of the causes and solutions. 

Back injuries may be associated with the following contributing factors:

  • Poor physical health, including increased age, obesity, physical deconditioning, muscle atrophy, diminished core strength and fatigue.

  • Pre-existing medical conditions and social habits, including prior back injuries, smoking that may impede blood circulation to the spine and osteoporosis that increases the risks of fracture.

  • Improper lifting techniques, including increased exertion force that an employee may use when attempting to lift something requiring two or more people.

  • Poor posture.

  • Repetitive movements that may require the employee work outside of the Power Zone (below the mid-thigh or above the mid-chest); this may also  involve twisting, reaching and bending.

  • Prolonged sitting and inactivity, including an awkward workstation set-up that is not ergonomically correct.

  • Lack of employee training, inspections, protocols and monitoring of the workplace on the part of the employer.

  • Hiring employees who are incapable of performing the specific job tasks and lack the proper skills required of the job they are expected to do (employers often make hasty decisions that lead to high turnover rates and more injuries).

  • Increased work demands, unreasonable quotas, stress and a hurried pace of work, including staff shortages that require employees maintain the same level of productivity as if fully staffed.

  • Employees not taking breaks or stretching before work and throughout the day.

  • Lack of employer empathy and genuine care for the well-being of employees.

So, how can employers create an environment that does not contribute to costly back injuries?  Strategies include:

  • When selecting a candidate during the hiring process, recommend a fit for duty exam that includes a job description for the medical provider to review while assessing the job candidate. Hiring smart is always best!

  • Incorporate a comprehensive training program for new hires and regularly thereafter for all employees.  This includes proper lifting techniques, the importance of a healthy diet, exercise, and quality sleep, a stretching program to do before the shift starts and throughout the workday and encouraging employees to take their approved breaks to help prevent fatigue and the increased likelihood of injury when muscles are tired.

  • Routine inspections and monitoring by supervisory/management staff to identify risks and unsafe conditions, elimination of hazards and obstructions and making employees feel comfortable expressing their opinions or needs for more training.

  • Safety protocols to educate employees on how to stay safe on the job.

  • Task rotation between demanding and lighter jobs.

  • Job sharing between employees.

  • Automation for certain tasks through lifts, robots, conveyors and lowering the height of loads to be lifted or moved.

  • Ergonomic assessments to assist with identifying problematic arrangements, implementation of helpful items and identification of risks.

  • Communication to employees that safety and the welfare of all is embraced by the employer and that all employees are vital and appreciated for their contributions to the business.

  • Welcoming employee input on what they like most about the job, the most fatiguing tasks they do, and how the workplace could be improved.  This communicates care, respect, and that each employee’s opinion matters, regardless of his or her title!

In summary, back injuries are detrimental to both the employee injured and the employer.  Prevention is always preferred, but developing strategies to decrease the risks is crucial.  Without employees, businesses cannot operate, and much of the workplace culture starts at the top. Caring for the employees and communicating respect from the top down goes a long way in productivity. It is something successful businesses already embrace. The focus must start with the recognition that each individual employee is an integral and valued part of the business, no matter the particular job. Happier, qualified and respected employees are less likely to suffer an injury, and isn’t that the goal?   I don’t know of a business anywhere that wouldn’t want increased productivity , fewer injuries and loyal employees… truly a win/win for everyone. And adopting just a few positive changes can make the difference. Isn’t your business worth it?

How We Can Help
If you have questions regarding preventing workplace injuries or other occupational health concerns, please contact Carol Wynn, RN at (919) 482-5281 or [email protected].