Back Pain and Injury at Work

Back pain and injuries to the back at work are an ever-present threat to the wellbeing of employees in the workplace.

According to estimates from the Labour Force Survey (2016), work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) in 2015/16 made up 41% of the total of all work-related illnesses, with 539,000 cases out of a total of 1,311,000. Although the number of new cases has not markedly increased over the last five years, the survey estimates 8.8 million working days were lost due to these types of disorder. That has an impact on productivity and often profitability of a range of businesses in a variety of industrial sectors.

Although it’s impossible to eradicate WRMSDs from the workplace, there are some things you can do to help prevent pain and injury. You might think that disorders are caused mostly by heavy lifting, but sitting at a desk all day or making repetitive movements are also common causes of back strain and the pain and discomfort that comes with it.

When your back is hurting, for whatever reason, it makes it difficult to concentrate on your work, and lack of concentration can have potentially dangerous effects depending on the type of work being done. You could expect sectors such as construction, factory work and nursing to put additional strains on the back, but even routine office work can cause problems.

Understanding the causes of back pain, injury and what you can do about it will lead to a healthier and happier workforce.

Common causes of back pain in the workplace

Three main factors can lead to back pain at work:

  • Force: If you exert too much force onto the back, you could cause an injury. This is most likely to happen through moving or lifting heavy objects, but could also happen just by moving a chair while being in a position where your back could twist and get hurt. 
  • Repetitive actions: When you have to perform certain movements repeatedly, especially if this involves twisting or rotating your spine, you could be at risk of injuring your back. 
  • Inactivity: Sitting all day at a desk or doing other tasks where you don’t have to move around very much will increase the risk of developing back problems. Usually, this is down to poor posture or using a chair that has inadequate support for the back.

 Lifestyles factors that can cause back pain

The three main factors outlined are not the only potential causes of back pain. As your body ages, the possibility of suffering back pain increases, and though there’s not much you can do about the ageing process, you can work to ensure you maintain a healthy lifestyle. Obesity and being in poor physical condition may also contribute to back problems, so keeping to a healthy weight can minimise the stresses on your back.

Eating well is also a way to strengthen the body and, by extension, the skeleton, so incorporate foods that have plenty of calcium and vitamin D into your diet to help prevent osteoporosis. That is a condition where the bones become brittle and weak, which can lead to bones fracturing more readily, and acute back pain.

Regular exercise also helps to strengthen the whole body, and you can build up the amount you do gradually, contributing to healthy muscles and bones. If you are a smoker, it’s worth quitting because smoking causes reduced blood flow to the lower spine, which may contribute to the degeneration of spinal discs. The back may heal more slowly as a result.

How to prevent back pain at work

There are several ways you can help prevent back pain and injury in the workplace, though the best measures to take will depend on the type of work you do.

  • Do your lifting properly: Lifting and carrying heavy objects puts an immediate strain on the back. Make sure you lift by bending and straightening your legs and tighten your core muscles, holding what you are lifting close to body. If you twist when you’re lifting, you’re at risk of damaging the back, so maintain your back’s natural curve. If something is too heavy to lift by yourself safely, ask for help – don’t try to carry on because you think you should be able to. You can protect yourself further by using one of a range of back support belts to help reduce the possibility of injury. 
  • Ensure you have a good posture: If you are standing, especially for long periods, balance your weight evenly on your feet and avoid slouching. When sitting, get an ergonomic chair that will support the curve of your spine. The chair should be adjustable so that your feet can rest flat on the floor or on a footrest. Thighs should be parallel to the floor. Maintaining a good posture in any work environment can help prevent back injury and pain. 
  • Modify any repetitive tasks: Where possible, alternate demanding physical tasks with ones that are less demanding. When you have to lift loads, use lifting devices to help you if they are available. If not, consider asking your manager or employer to provide some. For regular computer work, position your monitor, keyboard and chair properly so that you are not putting an additional strain onto your neck and back muscles. When using a laptop, put it in an appropriate raised position rather than hunching over it. Try not to bend, twist or reach unnecessarily to give yourself a much better chance of preventing problems with your back. 

Much of the prevention of back injuries and pain at work is down to knowing what to do, and much is also common sense. Your back is a complex part of your body, and you should always be aware of what that body is telling you. Back pain is unpleasant and it’s not just at work that you suffer – it’s in your free time as well.

Be aware of the many things you can do to reduce the chances of injuring your back.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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