Last year back injuries made up nearly 1 in 10 workplace injuries in the NWT and Nunavut. Whether mild back pain or a more debilitating injury, back problems can have permanent impacts on someone’s working life, personal life, mood, and overall quality of life.
Some jobs come with a higher risk of back injury due to the type of day-to-day tasks and activities. Airport cargo handlers, mine labourers, and healthcare providers are some examples of high risk jobs. However, it is important to remember that back injuries are a risk to all workers. Do you ever have to lift things? Sit at a desk? Stand for long periods of time? Work with tools or machinery that vibrate? These tasks all have a risk of back injury, and it is important for everyone to understand how to prevent them.
Finding the Safety Hazards
The first step for creating a safer workplace is to identify the hazards. You can do this by completing a hazard assessment. This is a safety review of the jobs and tasks a worker takes on, and the space(s) that they work in. A supervisor or employer is looking for any potential safety concerns in the work site(s), and a worker should be doing one for their own job and work space. In the case of back injuries, you are looking at things like: The need to lift heavy objects or move awkwardly (e.g. twisting) while carrying them; whether a job requires standing or sitting for long periods of time or in positions that may not be ergonomically correct; if there is a repetitive action taking place; the use of machinery or tools that vibrate, etc.
Once all of these safety concerns are identified, all workers need to be trained to recognize them, identify other concerns that may have been missed or might be new to the work site, and be given the tools and information on how to prevent back injuries.
Back injuries are commonly caused by:
- Overexertion: Last year injuries related to overexertion caused 40% of the accepted back injury claims at WSCC. These injuries typically occur when lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying heavy objects, particularly when combined with poor posture when bending over, or twisting. They can be prevented with lifting support equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), and help from coworkers.
- Poor ergonomics combined with repetitive activities: A worker is at risk of injury if they are continuously lifting, moving, working with equipment and tools that vibrate, or are working in the same position without breaks. The risk increases when ergonomics have not been considered. Many of these injuries are caused by the same sources as overexertion injuries, but happen gradually over time. Prevention tactics can include: proper breaks, stretching, rest times between the repetitive task or exposure to vibration, proper ergonomic evaluation and adjustments, and with the same methods used to prevent overexertion injuries.
- Poor ergonomics combined with inactive positions: This type of injury is often connected with desk work. When a worker remains inactive for most of the day, combined with poor ergonomics and desk posture, it puts the worker at higher risk of back problems. These injuries can be prevented with ergonomically friendly equipment that fits a worker’s individual needs, and with regular stretching and active breaks. Encourage workers to get up and move around every hour.
These causes of injury may work together to put workers at greater risk, so when doing your hazard assessment, it is important to look at the causes of injury as both individual hazards and as an overall hazardous situation. There is no single solution. Each employee, depending on their physical stature, may require a different set of tools, supports, ergonomic adjustments, or equipment to meet their needs. Once a hazard assessment is done, it is important to take that information and determine how best to prevent injuries from occurring.
Top 6 Back Injury Prevention Strategies
Talking to front line workers is always the best way to prevent injury. They know where the risks are, and importantly, they know their own personal limitations when it comes to carrying out tasks. Here are the top 6 things we recommend for improving your back injury prevention plan with the help of workers:
- Spot the Hazards – Follow the information listed above. Make sure everyone in your workplace knows and understands the hazards associated with their job. Teach them how to recognize hazards in the worksite, and encourage them to consider safety regularly, and report issues back to their supervisor.
- Policies and Procedures - Have clear safety policies and procedures for workers to review and understand. Include specific information like weight restrictions on lifting and procedures and information on how to accomplish higher risk tasks safely.
- Communication and Education - Use training and education to prepare employees, see below for free educational resources.
- Accessible Safety Equipment - Make lifting supports, PPE, and aids readily available and convenient for your employees to use.
- Teamwork and a Strong Safety Culture - Create a working climate where workers believe that asking for help is the preferred method for accomplishing tasks. A hero is someone that helps a co-worker do their job more safely, not someone who tries to do everything without support.
- Early Reporting - Make sure that workers feel comfortable reporting signs and symptoms of injury to their supervisor. Early recognition will lead to timely treatment and will potentially prevent further injury and/or prolonged recovery.
These tips will lead to the creation of a strong safety culture in your business. If you want to read more about your duties as an employer under the NWT and Nunavut legislation, refer to Section 85 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (OHS Regulations) for Nunavut and for the Northwest Territories.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms
While injury prevention is always the best path, it is equally important that workers recognize the signs and symptoms of injury. When an injury occurs, or in the early stages of a repetitive strain injury, it is essential that a worker identifies a problem and seeks treatment as soon as possible. Common symptoms may include:
- Aching, burning, or shooting pain
- Inability to move
- Swelling or tenderness
- Numb feeling
Encourage workers to self-assess regularly, and report to their supervisors if there is any indication of an injury. Have them report even if there was just a potential for an injury to occur. Use these incidents to adjust your safety plan to avoiding having a near miss become an injury.
From posters that serve as a visual reminder to education material, the WSCC has resources to help remind employees about the importance of preventing back injuries. Have a conversation with your employees, ask your employees to watch our videos, and use the resources to help guide your safety discussion:
- Video: Lifting Safely - Back Injury Prevention
- CCOHS Resources:
- Safety Bulletin: Sprains and Strains
- Hazard Alert: Lifting Injuries
- Hazard Assessment Form Template and the Hazard Assessment Code of Practice
- Young Worker Toolbox Talk: Handling and Lifting Instructor Guide and Student Sheet
If you want support in improving your lifting procedures in your workplace, or have questions about back injury prevention, contact the WSCC today.