Back Safety For Safety Managers

Back safety, which falls primarily under workplace ergonomics, is one of the biggest causes of missed work days (apparently only beat out by the common cold, according to the Bureau for Labor statistics!) that exists. Back injuries fall under musculoskeletal injuries, and safety managers wondering as to the importance of proper back safety should look no further than OSHA’s page on ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace:

  • In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that industries with the highest MSD* rates include health care, transportation and warehousing, retail and wholesale trade and construction.
  • According to BLS, the 387,820 MSD cases accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases in 2011.

Not only are these injuries common, but they can transform from short term inconveniences to lifelong debilitation in many cases. As a manager, it falls under your responsibility to make sure you address potential back injury hazards for your workers. While OSHA doesn’t have specific regulations for back safety, it can still fall under the general duty clause that requires employers to act in good faith and address known risks to their employees. In this article, we’re going to take a look at several ways you can accomplish this.

Give Yourself a Lift – The Right Way!

It’s no secret that, far and away, lifting heavy objects brings on the biggest risk to your employees’ backs. Strain can easily cause hernias and sprains before an employee has time to react to a bad lift or shift in weight of an object they’re carrying. When it comes to lifting safety, try to address risks in the following order.

  1. Removal – In some cases, you may be able to determine that you can remove the need to lift an object completely. Especially when lifted objects are being carried around/walked with, you should try to substitute in forklifts, hand trucks, and pallet jacks to move heavy objects for your workers. Doing so can completely eliminate or severely minimize the back injury risks associated with that part of their job.
  2. Re-arranging – When budget or space constraints make the use of larger carrying aids impossible, you should think about how processes involving lifting can be streamlined or conducted in an easier manner. This could involve moving tables to enable sliding or the lifting of boxes with less strain, cleaning areas to create safer walking paths, and bringing stations closer together when possible.
  3. Training – While it may seem odd that training comes last on the list, you need to understand that the first two steps are aimed at taking lifting out of the equation, or at least removing the need to lift heavy objects from the ground, one of the most dangerous lifting tasks common to warehouses and workplaces. However, if any lifting still remains to be done, you should be focussing your efforts on effective training. Show employees how they should move and position their bodies when grabbing objects off the floor: knees, not backs, should bend, and the legs should push upward to provide lift for a load, rather than the back providing power. Training should also place hard limits on the weight of boxes employees are expected to be able to lift on their own (many businesses cap this between 50 and 70 pounds, depending on the nature of the materials and products being handled). Lastly, there are many back injury prevention training DVD’s (like this training DVD) that provide awareness and best practices to help prevent back injuries.


For cases in which heavy lifts are necessary, personal protection and ergonomics equipment can help workers complete their tasks more safely. Many construction workers make use of lifting belts or braces that help to keep the back from arching or taking on too much strain when lifting.

Back injuries can also come down to grip, as slipping boxes can cause workers to jerk or move their bodies into unnatural positions. Therefore, gloves which help workers hold onto boxes can also save them from injury. Slings and handles that can attach to a box or load are other options for addressing grip and slippage.

Finally, slips, whether associated with lifting/carrying objects or not, can lead to back injuries. Make sure workers have proper footwear to maintain their traction. In addition, anti-slip tape (like this floor tape) can help prevent back injuries especially if working in slick environments.

Employee Behavior & Lifestyle

As a general rule, employers have very little control over what their employees do at home and how they live their lives after they punch out. However, active employees who stretch and get exercise each day are less susceptible to back injuries and are generally more agile and therefore resilient to workplace injury. You can’t make your employees exercise at home, but you can certainly implement stretching breaks at work to help keep workers limber. Consider leading employees in a stretching exercise twice per day, or requiring them to go through a quick “loosening up” routine when they start their shifts.

Personal Accommodations

While it can be burdensome to have to individually evaluate the job description of each and every worker, factors like age and previous health conditions can be cause for specific accommodations. Cushioning between the spinal discs decreases with age, putting older workers at risk for hernias or “slipped discs.” Encourage workers to come forward early on with health concerns, be they physical pain or discomfort, or doubt as to their ability to safely perform a task.

Closing Thoughts

The most important thing you can do when addressing back safety is simply to be observant and adapt. Work closely with your workers to hear their concerns, and respond in a manner that shows they were heard. If an injury or close call does occur, make sure that it is a learning experience and its surrounding conditions are addressed. Additionally, keep up with the latest best practices and recommendations from OSHA, the BLS, and other Department of Labor bodies.

Additional Resources