In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.8 million nonfatal on-the-job injuries and illnesses. Each year, over 1 million of these workers sustain back injuries in the workplace. Unfortunately, back injury is also the leading cause of job-related disability and is responsible for over 264 million annual lost workdays.
Why are these injuries so common? The back makes up a large part of the body and is comprised of countless muscles, ligaments, and discs that impact your ability to sit, stand, and move freely. Any damage to one of these many areas, and you've got a back injury.
Companies have a responsibility to safeguard their employees from debilitating back injuries and offer adequate training to avoid causes. Here are five common causes of back injuries at work.
A strong epidemiological relationship exists between low-back disorders and the biomechanical stressors of lifting combined with awkward body postures (e.g., reaching or bending forward, twisting, reaching overhead).1,2 Workers in the labor-intensive manufacturing, construction, and transportation industries often overexert their bodies on a daily basis, resulting in a variety of back injuries, such as torn ligaments, pinched nerves, fractured vertebrae, and herniated or bulging discs.
2. Slips, trips, and falls
Many jobs require employees to work on elevated surfaces, which increases the risk for a fall. Certain workplaces can be hotspots for back injuries if there are many risks for slips, trips, and falls. Spinal fractures, back strain, and other injuries can be a result of poorly-maintained environments without proper workplace safety standards.
3. Moving objects
Moving objects in the workplace poses serious risk, particularly for back injuries.
Employees can come into contact with pieces of work equipment in a variety of ways. Sometimes materials can fall from elevated platforms and hit an unsuspecting worker below. Employees can also be hit by a work vehicle or struck by a flying object thrown by a malfunctioning machine or a fellow worker who lost control.
4. Improper lifting
Employers should reinforce the significance of proper lifting techniques. Workers who are expected to lift heavy materials should fully understand how to lift using the correct form. This includes lifting with the legs and not the back, ensuring that the weight is evenly distributed, keeping the item close to the body, and contracting the core. It’s also important to encourage workers to ask for help if they need it and even provide training or workplace safety signs with reminders.
5. Repetitive motions
Some workers have jobs that require them to perform repetitive tasks that involve pulling, twisting, bending, or reaching. In this case, the back injury is not acute but develops over time. Eventually, employees may experience pain, stiffness, and inflammation due to the constant stress on their spine.
Avoid these common causes of back injuries at work
Fortunately, there are many ways employers can protect their workers from back injuries at work. Companies should offer extensive training to all employees and abide by all OSHA guidelines. Employers should teach workers proper lifting form, support changes to workstation layout to facilitate safe lifting postures, encourage stretching and physical activity outside of work, and implement the use of certified safety equipment at all times on the job.
- The NIOSH Lifting Equation and Low-Back Pain, Part 1: Association With Low-Back Pain in the BackWorks Prospective Cohort Study. Garg, et. al., HUMAN FACTORS Vol. 56, No. 1, February 2014.
- A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back. Bernard, et.al., NIOSH, CDC, July, 1997.