Back care: you can make a difference!

  • Published
  • By Larry James
  • Air Force Safety Center

"OUCH! Why did I try to lift that much weight on my own?" Did you ever ponder those words after you hoisted something heavy, or lifted from an awkward position? These incidents are well known causes of back strain, but you might not have considered other "underlying" factors that lead to back injury. Several conditions influence your "back health."

The cause of most back problems is poor posture, loss of flexibility, stressful living/working habits and above all, a general decline in physical fitness. Fixed positions--not moving enough--can also cause back problems. Staying in a fixed position for too long can lead to muscle spasms. We feel it as stiffness, but by the time discomfort from "static" muscle contractions is experienced, low level tissue damage has begun.

Poor body mechanics and bad lifting habits usually "trigger" a back injury-and are more likely to do so if overall physical condition is poor. Remember these techniques to help escape injury:

1. Get as close to the load as possible. The further the load is from the center line of your body, the greater the strain imposed on your back. If need be, squat down to lift the load and pull it between your legs. This gets it closer to the center of your body and helps prevent the need to bend at the waist. However, since your leg muscles are the largest muscles in your body, they are the biggest energy consumers. For repeated lifting, other strategies must be used.

2. Avoid picking up heavy objects placed below your knees. Try to see that heavy objects are placed and stored above knee level and below shoulder level. If you suspect the load is too heavy to be lifted comfortably, do not chance it. Use a mechanical aid, break the load down into its component parts, or get help. The most common cause of back injury is overloading.

3. Keep your back straight. This means don't bend at the waist when reaching to lift an object. Keep the natural arch in your lower back, which distributes the load evenly over the surface of spinal disks, and is less stressful than if the disk is pinched between vertebras. Bend from the hips rather than from the waist.

4. Glue your hand to your thigh. If you carry a load in one hand, such as when carrying a tool box, place your free hand on the outside of your thigh and mentally "glue" it into position. This will help you maintain correct back alignment rather than lifting and tilting to one side. When carrying a heavy load, side bending can be just as stressful to the spine as bending forward.

5. Tighten your stomach muscles. This technique helps prevent your spine from twisting. If you lift a load and need to place it off to one side, turn by moving your feet.

6. Stay in good physical condition. A protruding stomach is an extra load carried away from the center line of the body, and prevents you from keeping a lifted object close. When you bend at the waist to lift, due to the leverage principal, the load is up to 10 times heavier than its actual weight. A "pot belly" puts extra, stressful weight on the spine.

7. Stretch and loosen up before work. Research has shown that trunk flexibility and mobility is significantly lower in the morning than later in the day, increasing the number and severity of back strains at this time. A few minutes of stretching can warm up cold stiff muscles and tendons and help you avoid an injury.
What about back care when you are working in awkward positions? Work tasks that require you to reach or stretch away from your body while handling materials can also put excessive strain on the vertebral discs and soft tissues in the back. An awkward position is a work posture that distorts the spine from its natural curves, puts unbalanced pressure on the discs, and can strain arm, leg or back tissues if held for any length of time.

Here are some work situations that may put you in "awkward" positions.

1. Jobs that require you to bend and reach into bins or containers to retrieve or place material.

2. Overhead work, installing or servicing equipment, pulling wire, cleaning ceilings, etc.

3. Floor or ground level jobs such as installing or servicing equipment, cleaning, etc.

4. Work tasks in confined or small spaces where there is limited range of motion such as boilers, hatches, pipes, tanks, vaults, crawl spaces, etc.

5. Jobs on ladders, work platforms or scaffolding where you may over-reach to adjust, clean, install or service.

6. Pulling loads, instead of pushing them, when removing equipment or other materials.

7. Repetitive tasks that require twisting of the back such as loading or handling material 90o to 180o from the starting point
How can you avoid injury when working in awkward positions?

· Raise bins and containers off the floor and/or tilt them to reduce bending and over-reaching.
· When working overhead, stand on a steady and adjustable platform. Keep your back posture in its natural curve to avoid uneven spinal loading.
· If working on the floor, avoid bending over to work. Squat down using your leg muscles and wear cushioned knee pads if you have to kneel at work.
·In confined spaces, plan your work, and reduce clutter in the area which confines you further and increases the need to twist or overreach. Also arrange for adequate illumination.
· Don't hold an awkward position for too long. Pause often to stretch and straighten out.
· When leaning forward to work, support the weight of your upper body on your free hand and arm, whenever possible. This greatly relieves pressure on your lower back.
· Position yourself as close as possible to the job, avoid overreaching and/or use tools with longer handles when working on ladders or scaffolding.
· Never lift heavy loads that are far from your body's center of gravity. Get help in such cases.
· Position your work below the shoulder and above the knees to minimize over-reaching.
· Push, rather than pull, loads to help maintain the spine's natural curve.

In Conclusion: Improper lifting isn't the only thing that causes back injuries. People who do not also stay in good physical and mental condition are at high risk for back problems.

It's Up To You--Take Good Care Of Your Body and Save Your Back!