Back pain is one of the most common work-related injuries and is often caused by ordinary work activities such as sitting in an office chair or heavy lifting. Applying ergonomic principles – the study of the workplace as it relates to the worker – can help prevent work-related back pain and back injury and help maintain a healthy back.
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. Poor body mechanics (such as slouching in an office chair), prolonged activity, repetitive motions, and fatigue are major contributors to these injuries. This may occur from sitting in an office chair or standing for too long in one position.
- Accidental injury results 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. These accidents can jolt the neck, back, and other joints with resulting muscle strain or tearing of soft tissue in the back.
Back Injury from Physically Demanding Jobs
Occupations that are physically demanding and require repetitive lifting (such as in nursing or heavy industry) are at greatest risk for both non-accidental and accidental back injury. For example, many healthcare workers have back problems because patients are of different stature and weight with varying needs. Often, the patients need help changing position, rising from a chair and walking. Similarly, the physical effort needed on an accident or fire scene to release a trapped person or save a life is unpredictable. The same problems occur in the construction industry where consistencies of tasks are a challenge.
Office Chair Back Injuries
People who sit most of the day, such as those who work at a computer while sitting in an office chair, are also at high risk for non-accidental back injury. Office ergonomics, or computer ergonomics, can help minimize the risk of repetitive injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and the risks associated with prolonged sitting in an office chair, such as neck strain, lower back pain, and leg pain.
This article and other related ones summarize the use of ergonomic concepts, mechanical devices and good body mechanics (biomechanics) that can contribute to reducing back injuries in the work environment for many jobs. Importantly, staying physically fit, strong and flexible improves the likelihood of avoiding back injuries in all types of work environments.
There are certain basic ergonomic guidelines that may help an employee avoid back pain or back injury:
- Develop a job description based on the forces present in a particular work environment, the time spent performing the task and the biomechanics (which define human motions and seated posture in an office chair) used in the task.
- Use body posture as a tool that can be changed to meet the job demands with minimum stress on the muscles, ligaments, bones and joints.
- Learn and use appropriate body mechanics to limit extra mechanical stress in completing the task.
- Maintain fitness and flexibility and develop a reserve of strength.
Identifying Poor Posture and Risks
Many potentially harmful situations that lead to back injury can be identified and avoided by following four basic rules of thumb:
- Prolonged static posture is the enemy. The healthy body can only tolerate staying in one position for about 20 minutes. That is why sitting on an airplane, at a desk in an office chair, or at a movie theatre becomes uncomfortable after a short time. Standing in one place, such as standing on a concrete floor at an assembly line for extended periods of time tends to cause back pain. Holding the same position slowly diminishes elasticity in the soft tissues (muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the back). Then, stress builds up and causes back discomfort and/or leg discomfort. The solution is simple. Whether you’re sitting in an office chair or standing in a line, change positions frequently. Just move. Stand or sit, stretch, take a short walk. After returning to the standing or sitting posture, use an alternate posture for just a few moments and some of the tissue elasticity needed to protect the joints will return.
- Frequent or repetitive stretching to the end range of motion or awkward, angled postures can bind the joints. Unlike jobs that require long-term seating in an office chair, jobs that require frequent repetitive motion can cause great discomfort. Such jobs involve lifting from the floor, lifting overhead, moving bulky loads, or using rotational force or twisting while handling material and which signal back injuries might be on the way.
- Heavy loads offer greater risk. If the job requires moving heavy or bulky objects, it is important to have the proper tools or get help.
- 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.
If following these ergonomic rules of thumb is a frequent problem, the worker is at risk of sustaining or aggravating a back injury.
Are you suffering back or neck pain due to your job? Call our office at (304) 263-4927 today to schedule an appointment. Dr Terry Chambers is a Board certified chiropractor and acupuncturist licensed in WV.