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Reduce Back Injuries in the Workplace
Reduce Back-injuries in the Workplace

Workers' compensation claims, health care costs and lost productivity can all be reduced when manufacturers focus on reducing the risk of back injuries in the workplace.

By Marcia Jedd

When manufacturers take measures to prevent back injuries among their work force, it can have a big effect on employee health and the financial health of the company. Back pain costs employees and their employers plenty: more than $20 billion in medical costs annually in the United States alone. For the employer, costs associated with workers' compensation add to the mix, plus another $19.8 billion in lost productivity.

Methods Changed, Injuries Persist
In recent decades, people thought simply transferring the job of heavy lifting and moving materials onto pull carts or other systems would alleviate back injuries, but that's not necessarily the case, it's a little more complex than that, says William Marras, director of the Biodynamics Laboratory at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

An informal analysis done by the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation found pushing and pulling cause 20 to 25 percent of back injury claims. The movements associated with pushing and pulling cause stress on the spine in what's known as forward-back loads or shear loads, Marras says. Through highly sophisticated biomechanical modeling that measures electrical signals from trunk muscles along with hand forces and body motions, researchers at the Biodynamics Laboratory are able to calculate the forces occurring throughout the spine, learning about the real effect pushing, pulling and other workplace movements have on the spine.

Preventing Push-pull Injuries
Employers can take simple measures to help employees avoid back problems and other musculoskeletal (soft-tissue) injuries associated with pushing and pulling. One step is to include proper alignment of equipment handles at approximately 65 percent of the person's height, or at elbow level, Marras says. To avoid putting stress on the entire back, and not just the lower back where most back injuries have been thought to occur, Marras says to alleviate heavy loads when moving anything around corners, in elevators or other confined areas. Ceiling lifts for heavy lifting put less stress on the body than floor lifts, he says.

Create Ergonomic Work Areas
"It's not necessarily the behavior of the worker but instead the design of the workspace and the process flow," says Peter Budnick, a certified professional ergonomist, president of the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, and president of Ergoweb Inc., an ergonomics consultancy in Park City, Utah. "The best lifting avoids reaching, avoids bending at the waist or twisting. Lifting close to the body is the fastest and best way to do the lift. Everything outside of that range can be considered a wasteful motion."

Back Pain Facts: Did You Know?

  • One in six adults in the United States report back pain every month.
  • Those with back pain spend approximately 14 days each month dealing with it, according to a Nov. 10, 2004, article in Ergonomics Today, "Think Everyone Has Back Pain? Study Says They Probably Do," which cited data from the North American Spine Society (NASS).
  • Those who suffer from back pain spend 60 percent more in annual health care expenditures than those without back pain, according to a Jan. 5, 2004, article in Ergonomics Today, "Study Proves Back Pain Expensive."

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