Heavy lifting is not the only movement that can cause back pain. When we talk about back pain in the physical work environment we should first think, "how can we avoid back injuries?". As we know, prevention is better than a cure.

Work environments and their physical factors can be common causes of back pain. Poorly designed work areas, the nature of the work as well as the work load can result in additional stress on the back and spine.

The risks which come with lifting incorrectly are well known. These risks are increased when extreme work loads are placed on the body – that is, either the load is too heavy or too awkward. These loads place increased stress on the spine resulting in pain (technically known as mechanical back pain).

When assessing whether a work task may create additional risks for injury, consider the following:

  • Weight of the load
  • Distance of the load from the body (lever arm – can the load be kept close to the body e.g. poles, long pieces of wood)
  • Vertical lifting height
  • Spread of the load (is one end or part of the weight heavier? E.g. a sledge hammer)
  • Frequency of lifting
  • Duration of lifting
  • Speed of lifting

Safe Work Australia has a national model code of practice for hazardous manual tasks, which is a useful tool when assessing manual tasks in your workplace.

As well as the physical lifting task, it’s also important to consider the following:

  • Force (does the task require repetitive, sudden, high or sudden force?)
  • Movement (does the task require repetitive movement?)
  • Posture (does the worker have to adopt a sustained or awkward posture?)
  • Vibration (whole body or hand arm exposure).

Remember – when assessing the physical environment always involve your workers. Tasks which appear to be easy or pain free may be causing workers pain. Ensuring the physical environment and work design promotes sound posture is a vital step to reducing back injuries in the workplace.

Posture Poster

Worth D (2000) Moving in on Occupational Injury. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann

Wood, D. (1987). Design and evaluation of a back injury prevention program within a geriatric hospital. Spine, 12, 77-81

Hazardous manual tasks Code of Practice (2010)

Brendan Cook
BAppSc (Physiotherapy), MPH

Brendan is a physiotherapist who has worked in the area of workplace health over the last 7 years. He completed a master of public health with distinction from the University of Western Sydney in 2012. He has experience in injury treatment in addition to workplace health services such as pre-employment screening, Functional Capacity Evaluation, Job Task Analysis, worksite and workstation assessments.

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