Tackling back pain at work

Usability | January 2019

seated female experiencing back pain at work Employers and employees alike must focus on back health

Back pain at work is worryingly prevalent. With our aging population, and older adults being particularly prone to this debilitating condition, tackling back pain is a pressing issue for employers and employees alike.

Employers carry responsibility for encouraging safe and ergonomic working practices to help prevent the onset of back pain at work. By doing this, they help enable those suffering from it to remain in employment and perform their work tasks comfortably and efficiently. And there is much employees can do too, helping themselves to maintain healthy backs.


Back pain causes more disability than any other condition

image of human spine in standing figureBack pain can be debilitating emotionally as well as physically, and it now causes more disability than any other condition. This, and the stats around our aging population, serve to focus everyone’s attention. In the UK we have over 10 million over 50s in employment (that’s 31% of the total UK workforce). So it should surprise no one that back pain at work is also on the rise, with the prevalence increasing with age.


Back pain:

Costs the NHS £4.8 billion annually

Costs the UK economy £37 million daily

Results in benefit payments of £5 billion per year

Affects four in five Britons at some point in their lives

Represents half of all chronic pain.

Recent research has revealed that people who experience back and neck pain have a greater chance of early death. This is likely because chronic pain can weaken the immune system (making us more susceptible to disease) and can reduce the likelihood of someone maintaining a healthy lifestyle with good functional ability.


What causes back pain at work?

Back pain at work can be caused or aggravated by:

  • Poor posture
  • Twisting or bending awkwardly
  • Lifting incorrectly or unsafely.

This illustration shows the amount of pressure (relative to standing up straight) being put on one of your lumbar discs in different postures. Most office workers spend much of their working day sat down, which (even with good posture) puts 40% more pressure on a person’s lumbar discs, than standing.

diagram showing exposure to back pain at work from different postures

A supportive chair and good posture are therefore imperative to prevent back pain at work. The image also shows that bending the back, both with and without a load, increases the disc stress (so be careful about pedestal drawers, which can encourage employees to sit and bend to lift heavy objects from floor level). Twisting and bending the spine, even just slightly (as per lying flat on your back versus on your side) also increases the pressure.

comparison of sitting postures on back pain at work

Sitting or standing with a non-neutral posture, such as with a ‘C-shaped’ spine (shown in the image on the right, above), puts unequal pressure across the discs compared to an ‘S-shaped’ spine where the vertebrae tesselate nicely and therefore put equal pressure on the discs.

Many people get away with doing these things for years, so they don’t realise the impact their poor postures and poor lifting techniques are having on their body until it is too late. This helps to explain why the prevalence of back pain is higher in older people – eventually our bad habits catch up with us. By that time, it is very difficult to correct the bad habits that have led to the pain and associated problems. It’s also often very difficult to turn back time to correct the cause of the back pain.


Employees: preventing or managing back pain

Preventing back pain is so much better than attempting to cure it! Here are our seven tips for everyone to help keep back pain at work at bay).

  1. Exercise, move your back and take postural breaks regularly.
  2. Adopt good postures throughout the day, using supportive and comfortable furniture to help you.
  3. Distribute the weight of loads evenly across the body (and avoid carrying excessively heavy loads).
  4. Bend your knees and hips (not your back) when lifting/lowering loads.
  5. Maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle (lose any excess weight).
  6. Use relaxation techniques to manage stress.
  7. Avoid smoking.

The above advice also applies to helping to manage back pain, along with these four further tips:

  1. Act quickly to avoid long-term problems or time off work.
  2. Try to avoid, adapt or pace any activities that exacerbate back pain.
  3. Take 2-3 minute pauses from sitting or standing.
  4. Ensure you have a comfortable rucksack (carried over both shoulders) or trolley case to carry heavy loads in.

How employers can promote back health

If you oversee the health, safety and welfare of your workforce, here is our checklist to ensure you are doing everything you can to help your employees avoid back pain.
Educate employees on the importance of good back health and how to achieve it.

  • Encourage early reporting of musculoskeletal issues.
  • Conduct and review risk assessments to reduce the risk as far as is reasonably practicable. The MAC and RAPP tools can help to evaluate certain manual handling tasks involving the back.
  • Foster good manual handling practices through safe working practices and manual handling procedures, as well as providing suitable equipment and training.
  • Promote correct workstation set-up through DSE training, assessments and appropriate equipment provision.

Our ergonomics specialists will help you improve back care

If you’re unsure how to implement any of the above advice, or if you would like assistance conducting risk assessments or training your staff, we’d be delighted to help. Our ergonomics specialists understand the importance of tackling back pain at work, and how to support the needs of an ageing workforce.

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