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Construction Workers: Here’s How to Protect Your Back

Toby Graham /

Construction work is demanding and workers face a variety of hazards on the jobsite. There are so many ways workers can get injured… including falls, cuts and bruises, and even being struck by falling objects. 

But back injuries are one of the most common, accounting for 25% of all construction-related injuries. They can equate to long recovery times, and chronic back problems that could end a construction worker’s career.

And they’re expensive! Injuries to the upper back cost an average workers comp claim of $37,000 and lower back injuries topped $35,000. 

A Little Background on Your Back

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), about one in every four on-the-job injuries involves an employee’s back or spine. Some of these injuries are serious and can lead to disability or even death.

The most commonly injured area of the back is the lumbar region, also referred to as the lower back. It bears the most bodyweight of any area of the back. The lumbar region includes muscles that assist workers with rotation, flexibility, and strength which is why it is so important to keep our lumbar regions healthy.

Some common construction-related back injuries include:

  • sprains and strains
  • slipped discs
  • broken vertebra
  • pinched nerves
  • spinal cord damage 

OSHA and Back Injuries

Although OSHA doesn’t have a standard that sets limits on how much a person should lift or carry, NIOSH has developed a mathematical model that helps predict the risk of injury based on the weight being lifted and other criteria. The NIOSH model is based on medical research into the compressive forces needed to cause damage to bones and ligaments of the back. They share this model in a handy app along with their in-depth Applications Manual for the Revised NIOSH Lifting Equation.  

Employers should keep in mind that even though there is not a specific OSHA standard related to back injury prevention employee exposure to hazards related to heavy lifting and back injuries could be addressed under Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, also known as the General Duty Clause. 

The Clause states:

“Each employer — shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees…”

Causes of Back Injuries

Falls
Falls are the number one cause of construction worker deaths. Falls on the job site can cause spinal fractures or damage to the spinal cord, especially falls from great heights. 

Struck-by accidents
workers who are working at heights can fall after being struck by falling equipment or tools.

Repetitive motion strains
Workers who continuously or frequently twist and bend the spine and hold awkward or static positions can suffer from a cumulative trauma injury or cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) like tendonitis. When a worker’s muscles and ligaments weaken from repetitive and awkward positions, the chance of suffering an acute or sudden injury as a result of those repeated actions increases.

Incorrect lifting and carrying
Employees must understand the hazards of pushing, pulling, carrying, and lifting heavy loads. These actions can lead to torn ligaments, pulled muscles, pinched nerves, or other heavy lifting injuries. And carrying loads on one shoulder, under an arm, or in one hand creates uneven pressure on the spine which can lead to a back injury.

Slips and trips
Slips and trips can result in painful back injuries. Make sure floors and walkways are clear, dry, and free of trip hazards.

Prevention Tips

Help your workers prevent painful and debilitating back injuries by following these tips.

Use devices
If a load weighs more than 50 pounds, workers should use carts, dollies, forklifts, and hoists to move materials. 

Ask for help
Team up with another worker to help lift heavy loads. Remember, heavy loads place greater stress on muscles, discs, and vertebrae so ask for help!

Change things up
Avoid awkward positions and change postures so that you are not contorted or repeating a motion. Conduct work at waist level. 

Lift safely
When lifting, move items close to your body and use your legs when lifting from a low location to minimize bending and reaching. Get as close to your lifting load as possible. Store and place materials that need to be manually lifted at the “power zone” which is mid-thigh to mid-chest height. Place objects on shelves, tables, racks, or stacked pallets for easy lifting or use ladders or aerial lifts when necessary to elevate yourself to minimize reaching overhead.  When picking up materials off the ground, workers should support themselves by leaning on something while lifting. Avoid bending over; instead, kneel on one knee and pull the load up to the knee before standing.

Take Breaks
Take short rest breaks. When a worker is tired, they can get injured more easily.

Plan the move
Lifting and carrying while bending and twisting can cause a back injury. If you need to turn, turn your whole body rather than twisting at the waist. Lift and lower loads in a smooth and steady motion. Carry materials in the “safe zone” around your waist.

Employers, Here’s What You Can Do To Keep Your Employees Safe

Training and repetition are great ways to reinforce healthy work habits. Mix it up by using lots of different forms of communication, from new hire training to toolbox talks, to refresher training delivered through employees’ phones.

Periodic inspections and job hazard analyses help prevent situations that could lead to these costly injuries by minimizing these risks in the first place.

KPA EHS Helps Construction Companies Keep Their Employees Safe

KPA has the tools and resources to ensure that your worksite is a safe environment for all involved. Manage your safety program in an all-in-one system designed to engage your employees, instill a culture of safety, and enable regulatory compliance. Contact us today, and we can show you how.

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