I’ve gone and done my back in (again)…
I’m sorry that my first post on the Astutis blog doesn’t begin on a happier note, but they say to write what you know, and what I know this morning is the humbling experience of lower back pain. I was practicing some Aikido techniques with my Sensei last night and she had repeatedly instructed me that I did not need to bend so far forward at the end of the technique I was working on, but my brain and body had decided not to play nicely together and I continued to lean too far forward. Then I felt it ‘go’. A shooting, searing pain in my lower back telling me that for the next couple of days, putting my socks on in the morning was going require a full-on risk assessment and that I’d be walking everywhere like a constipated turkey! Still, on the positive side; I didn’t lean forward again during the rest of the session (every cloud etc. etc.)!
Musculoskeletal injuries are the most common type reported at work, with the number of cases per year being just under the half a million mark. Given that there are about 30 million people working in the UK, that’s 1.6%. So, if you’re an employer with, say 25 people, statistically speaking, you’re going to have someone report a back injury within the next 18 months. Given the nature of back pain and how the back, particularly the lower area, is involved in bodily movement, it’s likely that the person reporting the injury will be doing so from the relative safety of their bed. The average total cost for an employee absence from work is just under £1,000. So, if my maths is correct, the statistical cost of back pain alone to an employer of 25 people is around £650 per year, every year. Obviously, these figures are statistical and every workplace is different, but hopefully you get the idea, and the message here is to consider musculoskeletal injuries as part of the risk assessment.
It’s pretty obvious that tasks that involve heavy lifting are going to feature heavily in the risk assessment, but it’s also important not to overlook other tasks just because they don’t involve lifting. Working in an awkward posture can wreak havoc on the lower back, so too can working for prolonged periods in the same posture, even if only sitting at a desk. In fact, prolonged periods of sitting at a desk can have far more serious ill health effects, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, breast cancer and colon cancer.
In order to help identify hazards when conducting the manual handling risk assessment, it might be useful to remember the TILE framework:
T – Task. How long will it take, how often will it need to be done, where is the set down point, is the route clear etc.?
I – Individual. What are their capabilities, physical characteristics etc? Do they fall into a group that require their own dedicated risk assessment (new and expectant mothers and young people)?
L – Load. How big, awkward, bulky, unwieldy, slippery etc. Where is the centre of gravity? Are there hand-holds available?
E – Environment. Is it hot, humid? Is the floor unstable, uneven, obstructed etc.? The above is a very brief outline and there are loads of other really useful resources you can access for free to use when conducting manual handling risk assessments.
In order to help reduce the incidence of back pain in the work place, use the ERIC Saves People framework for controlling the risks:
E – Eliminate. Can the risk be completely eliminated by, for example, automating the lifting operations involved in a process?
R – Reduce. Can the risk be reduced by, for example, specifying smaller units of package form your suppliers?
I – Isolate. Can the risks be isolated? If you can think of an example that applies to manual handling, go ahead and put it in the comments.
C – Control. Can the risk be controlled, for example, storing items that need to be handled between waist and shoulder height.
S – Safe System of Work. If there is a residual risk following the implementation of other control measures under the ERIC headings, produce a clear safe system of work such as a written method statement for certain tasks that can be trained to staff.
P – Personal Protective Equipment. Items like back support belts etc. could be used, but only as a last resort, after all other options have been considered.
I hope the information provided above will be of some benefit to employers and managers required to manage the risks and hazards associated with back injuries, but for anyone already suffering from back pain, let me close this blog entry by offering the following advice to prevent/reduce the likelihood of recurrence:
1. Rest. The body has a remarkable ability to repair itself, but only if you allow it time to do so.
2. Lose the ego. If you’re into sports and physical activity, or you’re trying to impress someone, you might be tempted to lift something you shouldn’t. You’re better off in the long-run looking after your back, so you can continue to be active, even well into old age.
3. Do exercises that strengthen your core musculature. This provides a kind of natural lifting belt that will help protect your lower back.