A Mini-Guide to Minimizing Back and Shoulder Injuries

Lifting and moving objects safely at work is something many people have to deal with -- especially if they work in a factory or warehouse. Yet not everyone knows how to safely lift objects from the floor, and not everyone has the strength to lift. So, before you throw your back out, here's what you need to know to minimize back and shoulder injuries.

Assess the Difficulty of the Load Before Lifting
Assess the difficulty of the load before attempting to lift. Make sure employees understand this is the first step in lifting; it's not actually lifting the load. If possible or necessary, multiple employees may need to lift heavy loads together. Alternatively, employees should use lifting aides or machines to help minimize the risk of injuries.

Move Constantly Throughout the Day to Avoid Back Injuries
Moving throughout the day is also important. Workers who sit throughout the day, don't spend time moving, and don't exercise regularly are at a greater risk for a back injury.

Assess High-Risk Employees
Employees with a previous history of back injury should be watched carefully and prevented from lifting heavy objects unless or until you can confirm they are not at serious risk for future injuries. This may be confirmed by a doctor or health care professional. But, in most cases, those with previous injuries should not lift at all (or should lift minimally). Why? Because, even though workers' compensation can cover injuries, negligence is a claim that can allow an employee to sue the company directly and may result in additional money paid out, over and above the workers' comp claim.

Educate Employees on Proper Lifting Technique and Hold Fitness Classes
This might seem like an "out there" suggestion, but hiring a fitness trainer for the company will go a long way toward minimizing the risk of lifting-related injuries. How? The primary reason people are injured during lifting is because they do not have a strong conceptual understanding of how to lift objects at various heights.

Usually, objects need to be lifted from the floor. This requires training the barbell deadlift so employees have the practical experience and knowledge necessary to safely lift objects while at work. Broadly speaking, lifting a load from the floor requires all debris be cleared from the area so the object can be lifted without anything getting in the way. Good starting posture involves hip hinging -- bending at the waist while bracing the back with the abdominal muscles (pushing the abs out and using intra-abdominal pressure via the Valsalva maneuver) and arching the low back hard to protect the spine.

The actual lift is a hip hinge in the reverse direction, standing up straight and pulling the hips through. The hamstrings and glute muscles bear the brunt of the weight, avoiding shear force on the low back, thus minimizing injury.

If your employees are not familiar with proper deadlifting technique, training programs such as Starting Strength can help. Find a qualified Starting Strength coach near you so your employees don't become injured on the job.

Avoid Twisting Under Load
The human spine can withstand a great deal of shearing force before failure. Even sub-optimal back angles and lumbar and thoracic flexion are not serious problems for the spine. What is a problem is shear force combined with twisting. Moving under load has to be done very carefully, because the back is not designed to be rotated while under compression. This is largely how injuries happen. It's not the flexion. It's the jerking motions people make, the twisting and rotating under compression, that causes the problem.

Don't Reach While Lifting
Reaching while lifting can also create injuries because a moment arm is introduced into the lift. A moment arm is a combination of a load being held at a distance away from the center of gravity. A Khan Academy video explains more about what a moment arm is and how they work. This is a basic mechanical (physical) principle, and it applies to human beings, so you should understand how this impacts your employees at work. When an individual holds a heavy object with outstretched arms, the moment arm would be the distance between the individual and the object. To reduce moments, always keep objects close to the body when lifting.

Don't reach overhead either (unless the object is going straight overhead). The shoulder and shoulder girdle, along with the rotator cuff, can be easily damaged if the moment arm created by reaching with a heavy object is less than 1 foot.

Utilize Proven Overhead Lifting Techniques
Overhead lifting should be practiced before employees attempt to lift heavy objects. This is a skill, like the deadlift, which needs to be practiced consistently so that employees avoid injury.

Judge Anthony P. Calisi (ret.) has seen a lot of workplace injuries in his more than 30 years in the legal field. With a strong background as a personal injury lawyer, chief felony prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, and with 10 years’ experience on the bench as a municipal judge in Collin County, Texas, he has spent more over 30 years of his life helping people. He is currently the head writer at InjuryClaimCoach.com.

Posted by Anthony P. Calisi on Feb 02, 2015

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