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As an employee, you need to protect your back from injury. One of the common causes of injury is from lifting loads, which includes files, boxes, chairs, tables, trash bags, or other heavy item in your workplace. The following topic areas will provide an overview on the causes of back pain, tips for avoiding injury, and good lift technique.
Strained muscles and sprained ligaments are the most common causes of back pain. This type of back pain, which lasts less than three months, is considered to be “acute”. With proper treatment these injuries usually heal within a few weeks.
When back pain persists or frequently reoccurs, it is considered to be “chronic”. Chronic back pain may indicate that something is wrong with the spine itself.
Several factors may increase the onset of acute or chronic back pain including:
- Lifting incorrectly
- Carrying objects incorrectly
- Pushing or pulling heavy objects
- Frequent back bending
- Poor posture
- Being overweight
- Lack of physical fitness
- Inadequate tools
- Environmental barriers
Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing either acute or chronic back pain.
Maintaining a healthy back
Many back injuries result from weak, tight muscles. A few pre-activity stretches may help you be more flexible on the job and prevent a back injury. Remember to take deep breaths and hold stretches for the recommended amount of time. Release stretches slowly and consistently, and repeat as necessary.
Shoulder Shrugs (helps reduce upper back and neck discomfort)
- Stand or sit straight up; arms relaxed by your side.
- Slowly roll shoulders straight up towards your ears.
- Then squeeze shoulders together, and let them roll down and back. The movement should be smooth and circular, and should take 5 seconds. A mild, comfortable stretch should be felt through your shoulders and lower neck.
- Repeat 5 times.
Mid-Back Stretch (helps reduce fatigue between the shoulder blades)
- Stand or sit straight up; reach both arms straight out in front of you.
- Grab your left wrist lightly and pull left arm an inch further out.
- Inhale deeply and hold for 5 seconds.
- Exhale and release slowly, switch sides and repeat.
Standing Back Bend (helps reduce lower back discomfort)
- Place your hands on your hips with your feet shoulder width apart; slowly lean backwards.
- Look up towards the ceiling and hold for 10 seconds. A mild, comfortable stretch should be felt through your low and mid-back.
- Hold stretch for 10 seconds, release slowly, and repeat 5 times.
Hamstring Stretch (helps reduce lower back discomfort)
- Standing, put your left leg straight out in front of you (can be performed with heel on ground or slightly elevated surface, such as a 2"-6" step.)
- Lift your left toes up so only your heel touches the ground or step.
- Keeping your back as straight as possible, bend forward from your hip. A mild, comfortable stretch should be felt at the back of your thigh.
- Hold stretch for 10 seconds, release slowly.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Your Safe Lifting Zone is between your hips and shoulders. Lifting and carrying objects in this area is considered proper body mechanics and provides the best chance for minimizing injury.
Your At-Risk Zone is below the knees or above your head. When you try to lift in this area, your back muscles have to work harder, which may result in an injury. To protect your back when you must lift in your At-Risk Zone:
- Maintain a solid base of support with your feet
- Bend with your legs, not your back
- Lift weight using your arm and leg muscles
Your Danger Zone is below your knees and 12 inches and greater in front of your feet. This is where your back is most vulnerable to injury because it necessitates bending and reaching. To protect your back when you must lift in the Danger Zone:
- Lighten your load
- Move feet as close to load as possible
- Bend with your legs, not your back
- If you must reach: Bend at the hips
- Make smooth, consistent movements
Safe lifting technique
Here is a quick checklist of safe lifting techniques.
- Plan the lift.
- Size up the load.
- Establish a base.
- Get a good grip.
- Lift steadily.
- Keep it close.
- Move your feet.
Or, for a list with a little more detail...
Preparing for the lift:
- Size up the load. Test the weight before you try to lift. If it’s too heavy, divide it up, get help from a co-worker, or use a machine, dolly, or cart to assist you.
- Survey your route. Look for hazards such as spills, uneven surfaces, corners, and flooring changes.
Performing the lift:
- Make sure your mind is on the job, your spine is in its neutral “S” curve posture and you are in your Safe Lifting Zone.
- Get as close to the load as you can.
- With feet shoulder-width apart, either squat down with both feet equally squared or put one foot in front of the other using a diagonal squat.
- When performing the diagonal squat, bend at the hip not with your back, to lean over your forward leg.
- Keep your spine in its natural “S” curve and let your legs do the lifting
Lowering down lifts:
- Lower down to one knee.
- Hold the load close to your body as you squat.
- Balance the load on your other knee.
- Pause to adjust your grip, and set down.
Carrying and Lowering:
- If you have to turn, aim one foot toward your destination.
- Use your feet to pivot; don’t twist with your back.
- Set the load down in one slow movement.
- Carrying heavy loads in your Safe-Lifting Zone.
- Store heavy items at waist level.
- If the load is heavy or bulky, use a cart or dolly instead of carrying.
Other material handling considerations
Pushing and Pulling
- Pushing is easier on your back than pulling.
- When pushing, keep your back in a neutral position (head aligned with your shoulders and hips). Use both arms, and keep your stomach muscles tight.
- Survey the area for potential obstacles.
- If you must pull, stay close to the load. Keep your back straight, bend your knees slightly, and pull with one smooth motion.
- Ask for assistance if you cannot see around a tall cart. A co-worker can help guide you.
Here are some examples to help you create or enhance your campus training material.
- Ergonomics/Back Safety - includes link to training slides (UW-Milwaukee, web-based)
- Office Ergonomics Course (Wis. Dept. of Administration, web-based)
- Office Ergonomics Webcast (Wis. Dept. of Administration, may not work on all browsers)
- Back Safety for Custodians (developed by UW-Madison)
- Custodial Back Safety Training Videos: Three topics, three languages (UW-Madison, web-based)
- Office Ergonomics (UW-Madison, web-based)
- Guidelines for Safe Lifting (UW-Stevens Point, PowerPoint 2007)
Healthy Computing™ — A website full of good tips and information.
Safe Lift Calculator (Oregon OSHA) — Calculates safe lift weights based on duration, frequency, position of objects, and twisting.
Reference material for this webpage
- University of Wisconsin-Madison; Environment, Health and Safety Department; "Custodial Back Safety Handbook"; 2008.
- US Department of Labor; OSHA; "Back Injury Prevention for the Landscaping and Horticultural Services Industry"
Page last saved: 04/07/2014
This publication was prepared for environmental, health and safety staff at University of Wisconsin System campuses, to assist in finding resources and information for regulatory compliance. It is not intended to render legal advice.
(Read full legal disclaimer.)