Alex Minett, Head of Products & Markets at CHAS, looks at the steps companies and individuals can take to prevent back injury in the workplace.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, construction is responsible for the second-highest rate of musculoskeletal disorders in all industry with agriculture, forestry and fishing coming out just ahead. In 2019-20, the Labour Force Survey found that 8.9 million working days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders, with 480,000 workers suffering from injuries, of which 37% were linked to the back. While the rate of work-related musculoskeletal disorders have been showing a slight downward trend, they still account for 30% of all work-related ill-health issues reported and 27% of all working days lost. It’s therefore vital for companies to look at how to prevent the risk of injury in their workplaces.
How can back problems occur?
Generally, back issues will develop over time and become a chronic or episodic problem causing mild to severe pain. Sometimes they will occur after a work-related accident. According to the HSE, tasks that can cause back pain or make existing issues worse include:
- Lifting heavy or bulky loads
- Carrying loads awkwardly, possibly one-handed
- Pushing, pulling or dragging heavy loads
- Manual handling in awkward places, such as during delivery work
- Repetitive tasks, such as packing products
- Bending, crouching or stooping
- Stretching, twisting and reaching
- Being in one position for a long time
- Working beyond your capability or when physically overtired
- Working with display screen equipment (with poor posture)
- Driving long distances or over rough ground, especially if the seat is not, or cannot be, properly adjusted or operating heavy equipment (for example, excavators)
While rarely life-threatening, back problems can cause life-limiting conditions and chronic pain for sufferers.
Legal obligations and managing the risk
Under the The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, employers have a duty to protect workers from harm by providing adequate training in health and safety as well as information, instruction and supervision. They must also maintain a secure working environment where tasks can be undertaken safely.
The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 relate specifically to work that involves ‘the moving of items either by lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing or pulling’, any of which could present a potential risk of injury. It’s easier to prevent back injuries than cure them, and the steps an employer must take under the regulations begin with looking at whether the need for manual handling can be avoided altogether. Where this is not possible employers then have a duty to make a suitable assessment of the risk of injury from any manual handling operations that cannot be avoided while looking to reduce the risk of harm to as low as is reasonably practical, such as by using machinery or other equipment to carry out the task. Risk assessments and safety procedures should be reviewed regularly. Lastly, the regulations state that where possible, employees who are undertaking manual handling should be provided with precise information on the weight of each load and the heaviest side of any load whose centre of gravity is not positioned centrally.
Training is a crucial aspect of managing any health and safety risk. For example, employees should be educated on the dangers of back and spine injuries and how to recognise and avoid the causes. Training should also include techniques on moving and handling heavy loads and equipment either through demonstrations or videos.
Employee input when it comes to managing the risk of back injury is valuable. Often back pain occurs following a previous episode, so employees are best placed to provide information on their back health histories as well as their capabilities and they should always be encouraged to report problems early so the proper treatment can be sought. People are far more likely to recover from back pain when recognised early and treated appropriately. Where an employee may be reluctant to admit to their limitations, look for signs they may be struggling with back pain. Reluctance to do particular tasks could be a red flag that they are harbouring an injury.
Return to work discussions are an essential part of an employee’s recovery. It may be possible that they can come back before all their symptoms have completely disappeared depending on medical advice and consider whether an adjustment to work practices to accommodate their return will be necessary. It might be prudent to consult an occupational health professional for advice on back pain. Larger companies may have in-house occupational health departments; however there are plenty of external contractors who provide occupational health services.
Treating back pain
The NHS recommends a number of evidence-based treatments for back pain, and it can be helpful to signpost what employees can do to help themselves. For those given the all clear by a doctor, keeping active is lauded as one of the most important things that back pain sufferers can carry out as it’s likely to quicken recovery. Simple back stretches and exercises can often help reduce back pain, and gentle activities such as yoga, swimming, walking, and Pilates will strengthen and support the body. Cold compresses applied at regular intervals can effectively reduce inflammation around the painful area, and alternating with hot compresses can also provide relief.
If back pain continues then, it’s advisable to see a GP who may make referrals for further investigations or more specialist treatments. They may also prescribe stronger medication and muscle relaxants and occasionally surgery is appropriate.
Back pain and mental health
It is worth noting that sufferers of any chronic pain could go on to develop issues with their mental health, such as depression. Unrelenting back pain can lead to poor sleeping and eating habits, interrupt physical activity and all of the other activities that contribute to positive emotional wellbeing. Stress from suffering with pain can often exacerbate the physical symptoms, and so it becomes a vicious circle. GPs will often suggest psychological therapy in addition to other treatments for back pain.
Back pain is an extremely common condition. Although it usually improves within weeks, the disruption to businesses and workforces can be significant, particularly when there is a high risk the problem can return. A robust and transparent health and safety ethos and good, caring relations between employer and employee will pay dividends in the successful management of work-related back pain.
Back Care Awareness Week is organised by the charity BackCare and runs from 4th to 8th October 2021