How to prevent back injuries at work

Back injuries are one of the most common work-related health problems. Learn how much they can cost your business and what you can do to prevent them

Published Date: Sep 19, 2023

The back is the most commonly hurt part of the body when it comes to workplace injuries. It’s also the most common area of pain we treat here at Hinge Health.

The transportation and warehouse industries are at particularly high risk, but they aren’t the only ones. Even desk jobs pose the risk of back problems that can hike healthcare utilization, increase absences, lower productivity, and impact not just employees’ physical, but mental health.

This article covers the causes of back pain and injury at work, common types of back injuries, what back issues can cost your business, and strategies to help prevent them.

What Causes Back Pain and Back Injuries at Work?

Back pain and injuries can stem from various contributors, which can vary somewhat by industry.

For example, factory workers may develop lower back pain from being on their feet all day long. Healthcare professionals can experience mid- and upper-back pain from bending over patients. Employees who are primarily sitting at a computer may have neck pain from staring at a monitor all day.

More specifically, back problems at work can arise from:

  • Poor posture (how you sit or stand)

  • Staying in one position for too long (inactivity)

  • Repetition of certain movements

  • Heavy lifting

  • Poorly-designed workstations

  • Fatigue

  • Bad body mechanics (how you lift, push, pull, or carry objects)

  • Overuse/overexertion

  • Poor conditioning for the required work

Factors such as an aging workforce, as well as an increase in sitting combined with a decrease in exercise, can also contribute.

Types of Back Injuries in the Workplace

Back injuries can manifest in different ways, and they can be either acute or chronic. While acute injuries tend to have a definite cause and defined course of treatment, chronic MSK pain can be more difficult to diagnose and manage.

Some of the most common types of back injuries include:

  • Back strains and sprains: These occur when back muscles or tendons are abnormally stretched or torn due to a sudden injury or chronic overuse. Symptoms can include back stiffness, reduced range of motion, muscle spasms, back pain that travels to the buttocks, and back pain that goes on for more than two weeks.

  • Sciatica: Excessive sitting can lead to inflammation or injury of your sciatic nerve, which travels from the lower back through the hips, buttocks, and down each leg. Symptoms can include pain or burning that shoots down the leg, numbness, weakness, or a tingling feeling.

  • Herniated discs: A herniated disc happens when the disc slips or ruptures through a weakened part of the spine, causing pressure on nearby nerves or the spinal column. This most often occurs in the lower back. It may cause pain, numbness, or weakness in a leg, or no symptoms at all.

  • Spinal stenosis: When the space inside vertebrae becomes too small, it can put pressure on the spinal cord and nearby nerves. Some people may have no symptoms, but others may experience numbness, tingling, and pain, which can worsen over time. This can make it difficult to walk, or a person may need to lean forward to relieve pressure on their back.

The Price of Back Injuries in the Workplace

Worker’s compensation claims may be what first comes to mind when you think of the potential cost of back injuries in the workplace. With reports putting them in the five digits per injury, they certainly aren’t to be minimized.

But that doesn’t paint a full picture of the impact, as many employees never file a compensation claim and keep working despite their condition.

A review of productivity studies of U.S. employees found that pain was the most common health condition that led to productivity loss. 

Workers with back pain are absent four more days per year than those without back pain, costing businesses $51,400 in lost productivity and medical treatments per 100 employees per year.

They also have 4.4 more days of presenteeism each year. Lost work time and presenteeism due to low back pain costs employers $34,600 per 100 workers.

A Look at Medical Claims

According to Hinge Health internal analysis of a large commercial claims database (>46 million lives), medical spend on chronic back issues was estimated to be between $1,584 and $3,093 per member with back issues in 2021 to 2022.

In 2022, over 40% of the top 5% of MSK claimants had a chronic back/lower back issue. The total medical spend on these concerns accounted for more than a quarter of all chronic medical spend (which also included knee, shoulder, hip, and neck pain).

8 Strategies for Preventing Back Injuries at Work

Since back pain and injuries are so common, it’s crucial to have a strategy to prevent them from occurring, as well as a plan to slow down the progression of any worker injuries that have already occurred.

And with 41% of workers' compensation lower back injuries occurring within the first year of employment, it’s important that these be in place from day one.

Here are some tactics your company can institute if you haven’t already: 

Invest in ergonomics. Especially if employees sit primarily at a desk using a computer, set up their workstation using the principles of ergonomics: Provide an adjustable chair, with a desk that an employee can sit at so their wrists are at a 90-degree angle, with a monitor at arm's length away. Keep items in easy reach to avoid workers repetitively reaching about shoulder height, kneeling, squatting, or leaning over a counter.

Encourage movement. If employees are sitting or standing in one place for long periods, it’s important to get moving and stretch. This not only relaxes muscles and reduces back injuries, but can make workers more efficient.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) suggests specific stretches and strengthening activities to try.

You can schedule designated movement breaks into the day to encourage workers to take regular care of themselves.

Provide tools for heavy lifting. To avoid unnecessary strain from lifting, offer dollies, carts, lift trucks, and skid loaders.

Share and support techniques to lower back strain. Help employees learn to avoid awkward posture, use work tables at waist level, keep a neutral spine while sitting and standing, and use proper lifting techniques, OSHA suggests.

Modify repetitive tasks. Repeating the same tasks over and over puts stress on muscles, which is especially problematic when combined with poor posture.

Encourage employees to alternate tasks and postures to use different muscle groups, or schedule employees so they aren’t doing the same task throughout their shift.

Alert employees to the signs of a back injury. It’s easier to treat back injuries that are caught early on. Encourage employees to seek help if they feel back pain, numbness, or tingling before they become bigger issues.

Keep all work areas properly maintained. Make sure all workstations and equipment are up-to-date so that employees can work safely.

Provide programs to proactively deal with pain and strain. Even with your best efforts, it’s still likely that some of your employees will develop back pain or injury. Offer programs such as in-person or virtual physical therapy to address pain when it comes up.

A physical therapist can also help workers avoid issues in the first place through preventive conditioning exercises.

How Hinge Health can help you

Joint or muscle pain touches virtually every area of your business. Sufferers are less productive and more likely to be absent or prone to presenteeism. And with rates of new chronic pain cases soaring, already-high related healthcare costs will only continue to grow.

Hinge Health is a clinically complete MSK care approach that keeps members engaged. For everything from minor sprains to chronic pain, our care team uses advanced technology to manage member pain and remove barriers to recovery.

Studies demonstrate that our powerful, clinically validated digital MSK solution yields positive long-term outcomes and claims reductions.

There are many health issues you can’t have much of an impact on.

This isn’t one of them.

Let’s talk about how we can get to work for you.

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