How can Employees Avoid Common Back Injuries at Work?
August 26, 2020
Back injuries account for more missed work days than any other work incident, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 80 percent of back injuries are associated with lifting, bending, and various tasks involving materials handling. There are measures that employers and workers can take to help reduce the risk of injury. The first step is to understand how back injuries occur.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) characterizes back injuries as either acute or chronic. Acute injuries typically occur due to improper lifting. However, the underlying cause is often a combination of a specific incident preceded by weeks or months of repetitive microtrauma, creating a chronic condition in which the back’s musculoskeletal support mechanisms are weakened over time. Muscles, ligaments, vertebrae, and disks can develop disorders gradually, which workers may try to ignore until they become disabled after lifting a heavy load.
How are Back Injuries Classified?
Back injuries are classified according to the specific region of the back where the damage occurred. Each region is composed of vertebra bones, separated by disks. The spinal nerve runs through the large hole in the center of each vertebrae. Adults typically have 32 vertebrae in the spinal column. The regions of the back include the following:
- Cervical: Neck and upper back, which is composed of eight vertebrae.
- Thoracic: Upper and middle part of the back, which is composed of 12 vertebrae.
- Lumbar: The lumbar spine encompasses the lower back, which includes five vertebrae.
- Sacral: Below the lumbar is a bone called the sacrum, which is part of the pelvis; the coccyx, or tailbone, sits below the sacrum.
Certain types of injuries are specific to one region, whereas others can occur anywhere along the spine.
Injuries to the Cervical Spine
Damage sustained by the cervical area of the back includes the most severe type of spinal cord injuries, potentially resulting in paralysis and/or the inability to speak, including:
- Any trauma sustained by the cervical spine is extremely serious, potentially compromising the individual’s respiratory and cardiovascular functions. Traumatic cervical back injuries may be sustained during falls or caught-between accidents.
- Cervical spondylosis. This condition arises from wear and tear affecting disks in the neck area, which begin to shrink slowly in individuals over age 40, causing stiffness and pain. However, workers who perform tasks involving lifting overhead, repetitive neck motions, or standing in awkward positions are at a higher risk for developing advanced cervical spondylosis.
Thoracic Back Pain
Thoracic back pain is typically caused by inflammation in muscles or soft tissue of the mid-back. Inflammation can arise from various causes, including the following:
- Carrying a heavy backpack
- Standing or sitting in a slouched position for a long time
- Sprains or strains from lifting
- Prolonged use of computers
- Other types of overuse of the thoracic muscles
Whiplash injuries from car accidents on the job can result in muscle and ligament damage in the thoracic area, creating pain, soreness, loss of motion, and joint instability. In addition to muscle and soft tissue damage, the thoracic area of the back may sustain bone damage. According to the University of Maryland Medical System, vertebrae in the back can withstand a lot of pressure. However, they can break just like any other bone in the body.
Fractures of the Thoracic and Lumbar Spine
Physicians classify fractures of the thoracic and lumbar spine based on the pattern of the fracture and whether there is a spinal cord injury. The three major patterns of spine fracture are as follows:
- Flexion. This includes compression fractures, which are often the result of falling from heights and landing on the feet.
- Extension. Extension fractures occur when the vertebrae are pulled apart, as in a head-on collision in which the pelvis is held in place by a seat belt.
- Rotation. This type of fracture is less common, resulting from extreme sideways or lateral bending.
A compression fracture usually results from a combination of bending forward and downward pressure on the spine. It can occur simply by falling off a chair or a forceful jump.
Pinched Nerves from Herniated Disks
Pinched nerves can develop in any region of the back, as well as other parts of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Pinched nerves result when bones, cartilage, muscles, or tendons apply excessive pressure on the nerve, causing burning pain, numbness, or tingling, also known as paresthesia. When a spinal disk ruptures, the nucleus protrudes through a tear in the outer layer of the disk, compressing the nerve.
If the pressure on a nerve continues only for a short time, nerve function can return to normal. However, if pressure is not relieved, surgery may be required to correct the condition. Obesity, bone spurs, and rheumatoid arthritis can compress nerves over a long period of time. Bone spurs can be caused by an accident or osteoarthritis, stiffening the spine and narrowing the space where nerves travel. In addition, individuals with diabetes face a higher risk of nerve compression. Herniated disks in the thoracic or lumbar spine can result from numerous work incidents, including the following:
- Falling from a ladder
- Heavy lifting
- Bending and twisting
Pain from a herniated disk may radiate down the back of the leg, traveling down the sciatic nerve, also known as sciatica. Pinched nerves can be quite painful, requiring rest and pain relievers for days or weeks. However, most people can recover from pinched nerves without surgery if there is no permanent damage.
How can Injured Workers Treat Back Pain?
Except for fractures, most back injuries can be treated with a combination of the following:
- Hot or cold compresses
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Therapy, including massage, whirlpools, and ultrasounds
In the case of fractures, surgery and rehabilitation may be required to accomplish the following:
- Reduce pain
- Restore mobility
- Return as closely as possible to the preinjury state
A combination of inpatient and outpatient physical therapy may be needed to achieve these goals.
What Should I Do If I Have Work-Related Back Pain?
If employees are suffering work-related back pain, they should seek medical treatment as soon as they are aware that they have a problem. Not only will that improve their chances of healing faster, it is necessary for filing a successful Workers’ Compensation claim. If the injury or condition is work-related, it is important for employees to notify their supervisors as soon as they are aware of the condition.
It is not advisable for workers to wait to see if the back pain will disappear on its own. Insurance companies have been known to deny claims when employees delay seeking medical care. When reporting the injury to employers, the employee should be specific and provide all relevant details. The employee should consult a Workers’ Compensation lawyer to make sure all paperwork is filled out properly.
What can Employers Do to Reduce the Risk of Lifting Injuries?
Lifting is the primary cause of back injuries in the workplace. As previously noted, these injuries may arise from sudden trauma or cumulative strain. To reduce the risk of lifting injuries, employers can consult lifting equations provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). To calculate the impact of lifting tasks on worker health and safety, the equations take multiple factors into consideration, including load weights, frequency and duration of lifting tasks, and body and hand positions during lifting.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Attorneys at Galfand Berger LLP Help Workers Suffering from Back Injuries
Back injuries are all too common in the workplace. Employers and employees can take steps to reduce the risk of back injuries. If you suffered a back injury related to your occupation, contact the Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation attorneys at Galfand Berger LLP. If you need assistance with filing your claim, please fill out our online form or call 800-222-8792 for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, Pennsylvania, we proudly help injured workers throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Allentown and Harrisburg.