Back problems and disorders are the most common form of ill health at work. Tackling the problem involves a partnership approach between employers, workers and health and safety representatives, all of whom have a role to play.
The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) has made the tackling of back pain and related Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) one of its major priorities and, whilst not all MSDs can be prevented, there are things that can be done to minimise the risk.
What Causes Back Pain in The Workplace?
Exact causes of back pain can often be unclear but they are more common in tasks that involve the following:
- Heavy manual labour
- Manual Handling in awkward places, e.g. delivery work
- Repetitive tasks, e.g. manual packing of goods
- Sitting at a workstation for a prolonged period (e.g. working at computers) if the workstation is not correctly arranged or adjusted to suit the specific individual
- Driving at Work be it long distances or driving over rough terrain, particularly if the seat cannot be manually adjusted or is inadequately sprung
There are other common instances where back pain can be aggravated in the workplace. These can include stooping, bending or crouching (including poor posture when sat in front of PCs), lifting objects which are too heavy or bulky, pushing, pulling or dragging excessive loads, working beyond normal abilities and limits which cause you to become physically overtired, using poor lifting techniques or lifting items where you should be using a hoist or some other kind of lifting device, stretching, twisting and over-reaching, prolonged periods in one position and situations where parts of the body are subject to vibration, jolting and jarring.
How Can Back Pain in The Workplace be Properly Managed?
It is possible to reduce the incidence and severity of back pain by initially examining what situations could cause harm to people and deciding if you can take preventative action as part of your risk assessment policy. You should then try to eliminate or, at least, reduce the risks that could cause back pain. This could mean changing the way the work is organised or by introducing lifting equipment. It might be possible to redesign the specific task and/or the workplace to take into account the risks and review the situation with the workforce so that you can ensure whether or not any changes have been effective.
Consult with your health and safety representative and ensure that all staff receive information and training in how to avoid back problems. Quite often, it can simply be a matter of educating your staff, e.g. teaching them how to adjust their chair and desk, their VDU and how to sit properly when working at a computer. This is just one obvious example.
Talk regularly to your staff, they know what they find difficult and often have good ideas into ways in which things can be improved. Involving the workforce in discussions about how to improve health and safety will also make it easier to implement changes and workers will be more willing to adapt to changes they have had some input into.
Dos and Don’ts
Prevention is always far better than cure but back pain and MSDs resulting from work are never going to be completely eradicated. If you do suffer with your back, here’s a simple list of do’s and don’ts that will help you deal with back pain and enable you to get on with your life:
- Do stay as active as usual, if possible, but see your doctor if your condition worsens or the pain persists over time
- Do take simple pain relief to cope with the pain
- Do speak to your employer, worker’s representative, health and safety representative to discuss possible remedial action that can help you stay at work
- Do try to find out more about back pain and ways in which you can help yourself and things that employer’s can do to assist you. The Health & Safety Executive can point you in the direction of books on MSDs and also produce a book called ‘The Back Book’
- Don’t take to your bed and wait for the pain to diminish. The sooner you get back to normal activity the better
- Don’t worry. Back pain is rarely a sign of a more serious condition and unnecessary worry delays recovery
- Don’t avoid activities simply as a way of avoiding the pain. Although you shouldn’t take up gymnastics if you have severe back pain, hurt and pain does not always mean harm
For more information on ways of managing back pain in the workplace and reducing the risks, contact the Health & Safety Executive. Their website also contains many useful links relating to these issues.