Back injuries are the No. 1 cause of workplace injuries across the U.S. and the No. 1 cause of workers’ compensation claims. In fact, 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life.
“About one in five work-related injuries involves the back,” says Jonathan Theders, president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. “Helping employees take care of their backs is important for reducing costs and keeping employees safe.”
Creating a back injury prevention program can help a company reduce the cumulative effects of back injuries, as well as reduce the frequency with which they occur.
Smart Business spoke with Theders about how to keep employees from injuring their backs in the workplace.
Why should employers be concerned about back injuries in the workplace?
Back pain affects everything you do. Your quality of life in everything from work to home life to driving is greatly affected by the back. There is also a mental aspect to that pain that is quite powerful.
It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting at a computer all day, working on a factory line, driving a truck or cutting hair. Your back is potentially at risk regardless of your occupation, as back injuries affect everyone.
Helping employees take care of their backs is important because back injuries lead not only to workers’ compensation costs and potential disability, but they also affect morale, resulting in decreased productivity.
It certainly negatively affects the company’s bottom line.
What are some causes of back injuries in the workplace?
Three prominent causes of back injuries are employees who are tired, stressed or short of help. When they have more work to do, people tend to move faster or do things they’re not completely trained on. So if you take an employee out of the work force for any reason, the effect it could have on the next person could be dangerous. They will be more tired because they are doing more work, and they are more stressed because they are outside their comfort zone of what they normally do. Plus, because you’re short on help, they are cramming more and more into the same day.
A lot of back injuries involve surgery and/or months of therapy. Not only have you lost that employee’s productivity, but because somebody else is picking up the extra work that person is missing, there is additional stress. It causes a domino effect. That first work-related injury can lead to another and another because you’re compounding its effects across the spectrum of the business.
What can companies do to help prevent back injuries?
There are a couple of key issues that employers should talk about: posture, safe lifting and overall fitness.
Every employer should adopt a back injury prevention program. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but it’s something you really want to think through; it’s not just printing off a policy and sticking it in an employee handbook.
You need to think about the mechanics of the jobs at your workplace and what employees are encountering. Talk about stretching, training and understanding of how the back works.
It’s an education process that starts at the very top and becomes ingrained into the culture of the company.
Back injuries are typically cumulative. Something as simple as bending down to pick up a pen may have been the trigger, but it’s never really the cause of the injury. People think that one thing caused it, but it could have been years and years of not treating the back properly — picking up that pen was just the trigger.
What should be included in a workplace back injury prevention program?
A back injury prevention program should encompass four things: Procedures for identifying back injury hazards in the workplace, methods for preventing those injuries, employee training and recordkeeping procedures.
The first step is to target the back injury problems. Review claims from your OSHA logs or workers’ compensation claims, inspect the workplace and, most important, interview employees and supervisors. Then you’ll have a true understanding of what occurred and what could occur.
Next, go through workplace improvements. What can be done to make things easier? If employees are bending down and lifting things off the floor, you could have those things elevated or have a lift installed so they are working at a more appropriate level for their backs. You can also use simple techniques like bridging — if you are going to reach for something, you can use one arm to help support the angle of the back.
Another key component is to create a stretching or warm-up program. People think this will take too much time away from work, but it doesn’t take much time to have an effect. Even five minutes of stretching can help prevent injury.
Someone who stands a lot at work should do four main stretches: the hamstring stretch, the lower back stretch, side stretches and the quad stretch. Just hold those stretches for 12 to 15 seconds, two or three times — it’s less than five minutes, but these simple stretches can greatly reduce the chance of an accident.
Even someone sitting at a computer should be taught how to do neck and back stretches to prepare for the day. It’s a great morale booster for employees, and they feel a sense of appreciation and understanding.
Jonathan Theders, CPIA, is president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. Reach him at (513) 779-2800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.