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SAFETY NOTES - Back pain could jeopardize job time

By Dawn Douglas | GARRISON SAFETY OFFICE | March 10, 2014

After the common cold, do you know what is the most common cause of lost work time and compensation in adults under the age of 45? Lower back problems. Back injuries account for $126 billion in compensation and medical cost each year. You read that right, $126 billion, which is 0.9 percent of the U.S. national debt. One of the best investments an employer can make to prevent both acute and chronic back injuries is an effective ergonomics program.

The word ergonomic is derived from two Greek words: ergon, meaning work, and nomoi, meaning natural laws, to create a word that means the science of work and a person’s relationship to that work. Simply, ergonomics means fitting the work environment to the worker. The goal of an ergonomics program in industry is to adapt the workplace to a specific worker, dependent on the job description, required tasks and physical make up of the employee performing those tasks. Two types of situations typically cause people to begin having back pain or to sustain a back injury while on the job:

• Non-accidental injury, where pain arises as a result of normal activities and requirements of the task.

• Accidental injury when an unexpected event triggers injury during the task. A load that slips or shifts as it is being lifted, and a slip and fall or hitting one’s head on a cabinet door are typical examples.

Here are some tips to help employees avoid back pain and injury:

• Practice good posture. Good body posture minimizes stress on the muscles, ligaments, bones and joints.

• Move. The healthy body can only tolerate staying in one position for about 20 minutes. Holding the same position slowly diminishes the elasticity in the soft tissues – muscle ligaments and tendons in the back, then stress builds up and causes back discomfort and/ or leg discomfort. Whether you’re sitting in an office chair or standing in a line, change positions frequently.

• Use mechanical assistance. Frequent or repetitive stretching to the end range of motion or awkward, angled postures can bind the joints. Jobs that require frequent repetitive motion can cause great discomfort. Such jobs involve lifting from the floor, lifting overhead, moving bulky loads, using rotational force or twisting while handling material, and which signal back injuries might be on the way. When feasible, use mechanical equipment to avoid manual lifting.

• Size up the job. If you must manually lift something, size up the job first. If the job is too big to handle safely on your own, find someone to help you. When lifting, stand close to the object, bend at the knees and keep your back straight. Lift with the muscles in your arms, legs and abdomen, not your back. Hold the object close to your body and never twist your back while handling a load. If you must turn, do so by moving your feet.

• Get some rest. Fatigue from sitting in an office chair for days, from work or from insomnia can make people move more awkwardly. If one is overtired or feels fatigued, it is advisable to avoid lifting heavy objects alone or quickly.

• Sit in your current chair correctly. Many people sit toward the front of their chair and end up hunching forward to look at their computer screen. The better seated posture is to sit back in the office chair and utilize the chair’s lumbar support to keep the head and neck erect.

• Rearrange your workstation. Choose the surface height for the desk best for the task to be performed. Adjust the seat of the office chair so the work surface is elbow high. A fist should be able to pass easily behind the calf and in front of the seat edge to keep the back of the legs from being pressed too hard and the feet from swelling. Two fingers should slip easily under each thigh. If not, use a couple of telephone books or a footrest to raise the knees level with the hips. The backrest of the office chair should push the low back forward slightly. Fit the height of the computer screen. Sit comfortably in the newly adjusted office chair. Close both eyes and relax. Then, slowly reopen them. Where the gaze initially focuses is the place to put the center of the computer screen. The screen can be raised using books or a stand if needed.

• Assign a monitor. Assign a person to announce times for micro breaks or remind workers to correct their posture or lead group movement and stretching exercises.

By making small, but efficient changes, you could make your workers more comfortable and their work more efficient. If you need more ergonomic assistance contact the Garrison Safety Office at 785-240-0647 or email dawn.j.douglas.civ@mail.mil for ergonomic assessments, recommendations and potential funding for workstation improvements for those who qualify.
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