Health & Safety

Back Safety in the Workplace

Back Safety – What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You! Back safety is a critical component of a successful ergonomics program. Lifting Safety Procedures Prevent Serious Injuries. Safe lifting and load-carrying skills are critical for avoiding unpleasant and costly workplace injuries.

Back pain is one of most common health problems facing the work force today. It is estimated that back injuries cost industry over $80 billion every year, and the cost is growing.

Eighty percent of the population will suffer back pain at some time in their lives. However, you can protect your back if you understand the causes of back pain and know how to avoid them.

The Back Safety is a reference tool that you can use to reinforce your understanding of how to keep your back healthy.

Back Safety is divided into three parts:

  • Posture
  • Safe Lifting
  • Exercises

Posture” explains what good posture is and describes techniques that can be used to help maintain good posture.

Safe Lifting” describes proper techniques for lifting and moving an object, carrying a long load, and stacking a load.

Exercises” describes basic exercises that can be done in an office and basic exercises that can be done at home or in a gym.


This part explains what the term “good posture” means and describes techniques that can be used to help maintain good posture.

Causes Of Back Pain

Back pain can be caused by a number of factors, such as disease, birth defects, injury, or chronic overuse. While there is not a whole lot that you can do to prevent disease or birth defects, avoiding injury and overuse is within your control.

Before you can fully understand how to avoid back injury and overuse, it is important to understand what goes on inside your back when you feel pain.

Muscles And Tendons

The majority of back injuries are the result of damage to muscles and tendons in the back. With rest, these types of injuries will usually heal on their own.

The Spine

A small percentage of back injuries involve spinal injury. Injuries to the spine are usually the most severe and the most costly of all back injuries.

The spine is made up of a series of bones, called vertebrae, that stack on top of one another. It reaches from your hips to your skull, and it has three natural curves that help distribute the load placed on it.


The spinal column protects your spinal cord and supports your upper body, allowing you to maintain erect posture. Separating the vertebrae are fluid-filled sacs called intervertebral discs. These discs act as cushions between the vertebrae. The discs also allow the spine to flex and bend.

Low back pain often develops in the vertebrae of the lumbar region of the spine. The majority of the weight supported by your back is centered on these vertebrae. They are also the vertebrae that pivot when the body twists.

Disc Problems

The weight of a load being lifted is often more than the vertebrae and their discs can take. A slipped, ruptured, or herniated disc can result from this type of injury.

Back pain due to a disc problem is usually the result of continued stress and neglect. Disc problems are seldom the result of a single accident.

Because of the constant stress on the discs, the discs can eventually wear out. You may have heard this referred to as a ruptured disc or a herniated disc.

Over time, the stress can accumulate until a simple movement such as turning to open a drawer or reaching for a phone book can cause a disc to rupture or slip.

Muscle Strains

Just as important as the spinal column are the muscles and ligaments that attach to it. The majority of back injuries are caused by muscle strains.

Good Posture

One of the simplest ways to avoid back pain is to maintain good posture. Generally speaking, good posture means maintaining the three natural curves of your spine. This involves keeping your spinal column in a position where it can support your body weight with the least amount of strain on your muscles, vertebrae, and discs.

Good posture is especially important when you must sit or stand for long periods of time.


To maintain good posture when you are sitting, it is important to be sure that your back is supported properly.

Start with a chair that provides plenty of support for your lower back. When you sit down, be sure that your hips are all the way into the backrest of the chair. Slouching will prevent your lower back from getting any support at all.

Your chair should be adjusted so that your knees are slightly higher than your hips and your back is reclined slightly. For most people, this posture should produce a very relaxed, comfortable position.

Sit so that your entire back is firmly against the backrest. If the chair does not provide a good backrest for your lower back, place a rolled-up towel or a small, firm pillow behind your back. You can also sit on a seat wedge or another rolled towel to provide additional support.

Work Practices

Your work practices can be just as important as the chair you sit in when it comes to protecting your back. For example, when you must read, hold the material vertically, so that you do not have to lean over to read it.

You can also use a book rest to raise a book into a position that is more comfortable to read.

When your work requires you to sit for long periods of time, shift positions occasionally to relieve the pressure. Take a break from time to time to stand up, stretch, and walk around to give your back a rest.

You can also stretch your back by lowering your head to your knees and holding that position for several seconds.


If your work requires you to stand for a long period of time, stand up straight and tall to maintain the natural curvature of your spine.

To relieve some of the stress on your back when you are standing, place one foot on a step stool or other raised support. After several minutes, place the other foot on the step stool.


Back strains can be triggered by many common activities, such as reaching for an object on an overhead shelf. This motion is especially hazardous if the object is heavy. To retrieve an object located over your head, use a step stool or a ladder.

Picking Up An Object

Even picking up an object off of the floor can cause back pain. To pick up an object while you are seated, begin by sliding to the edge of your chair.

Place one foot in front of you and one hand on your desk to support some of your weight. Then, bend over and pick up the object.

After you pick up the object, shift back in your chair and return to the proper posture for sitting.

Safe Lifting

This part describes the proper techniques for lifting and moving an object. It also describes some techniques that can be used to carry a long load, stack a load, and perform activities that involve twisting or turning.

Proper Procedures

It is very important to keep your back in mind whenever you have to lift an object. Picking a box up off of the floor may seem like a very simple task, but even something simple can lead to back pain if the proper procedures are not followed.

Mental Lift

Whenever you have to lift an object, you should start by carefully planning the lift. You may hear this referred to as a “mental lift.”

Begin by assessing the object to be lifted. Take into account the object’s weight, size, shape, and contents.

You must determine if the object can be safely carried by one person or if you will need help to lift it.

The object’s location must also be considered. For example, where the object is located will determine how high you must lift it.

Danger Zones

One of the best ways to reduce lifting injuries is to avoid placing objects in the two lifting “danger zones.”

One of the danger zones is below your knees. Picking up or setting down an object lower than your knees creates a risk for back injuries.

The other danger zone is above your shoulders.

Whenever possible, avoid placing objects on the floor or on shelves above shoulder level.

To retrieve an object from an overhead shelf, use a step ladder to bring the object below your shoulders before picking it up. Objects stored on the floor should be raised before you pick them up, if possible.

Distance And Destination

How far you must carry the object must also be considered. Check out the path that you will take to be sure that you will not encounter any obstacles.

You should make sure that the path to your destination has been cleared before you begin the lift. If you fail to check out your destination, you could end up lifting the object more than once.

Proper Lifting

Each time you perform a lift, there is a potential risk of injury, so it is important to use the proper technique.


Once you have planned the lift, you can get into position to begin the lift. Stand as close to the object as possible, so that you can keep the load as close to your body as possible.

Place your feet shoulder-width apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other. Squat down in front of the object and get a firm grasp on it.

Generally speaking, when you are in position to lift, your back should be completely straight, and your body weight should be centered over your legs.

Test Lift

At this point, you should test-lift the load. If it is too heavy or bulky, get help.

Actual Lift

If you determine that you can safely lift the load, take a deep breath, and then exhale slowly as you use the muscles in your thighs to raise yourself and the object. Keep the object at waist level, and make sure that it does not block your view.

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Walking With A Load

As you walk, be sure to keep the load under control. If the load is allowed to bounce as you walk, you could lose control or strain a muscle in your back.

Setting A Load Down

When you reach your destination, use your legs to lower the object into position. Again, be sure to keep your back straight.

Set the load down smoothly and slowly, rather than dropping it. Handling a load in a jerky or abrupt manner can lead to a back injury.

Awkward Loads

Some loads are too large, too long, or too bulky to carry alone. There are some important guidelines to keep in mind in these lifting situations.

For an object that is too long to carry alone, both you and your partner should carry the object below shoulder height.

Carrying the object above your shoulder may seem like a good idea, but carrying even a light object improperly for a long time can lead to back strain.

If the object is too bulky or awkward to carry, use a hand truck or other lifting device to lift and move the load. Be sure to secure the load in place so that it does not shift and fall as you are moving it.

Stacking A Load

When you are loading or unloading material, you may need to stack several objects on a pallet or a shelf. In this situation, you should always use the proper lifting and lowering techniques.

As you stack the load, be certain to keep it under control at all times. Do not throw the load. Lower the load into position by using your legs, and always keep your back straight.

Twisting And Turning

Another situation that could present a back hazard is turning a valve wheel or using a wrench. In this type of situation, it is important to get a good footing and to be sure that your body is balanced over your feet.

As you turn a valve wheel, let your arms do the work. Avoid twisting your back.

Never over-reach to turn a wrench. If you have to stretch to reach a bolt with your wrench, you could strain your back from the awkward position.


This part describes basic exercises that can be done to strengthen your back and stretch your muscles. The exercises do not require any fancy equipment or special workout clothes. Some of the exercises can be done in or around an office, while others are better done at home or in the gym.

Physical Fitness

One of the most important factors in avoiding back pain is keeping yourself physically fit. Your general level of fitness contributes to the health and safety of your back.

In addition, there are some specific stretching techniques and exercises that will help you keep your back strong and injury free. Other exercises can help strengthen the muscles that support your back and carry loads.

Exercising At The Office

Some back exercises can easily be done around the office. Examples include the back slide and the side stretch.

Back Slide

The back slide is an exercise that will help to strengthen your leg, hip, and back muscles.

To perform the back slide, lean your back firmly against a wall. Place your feet about 8 to 12 inches away from the wall, and spread your feet so that they are in line with your shoulders.

Next, bend your knees and slide your back down the wall until you are in a semiseated position. The upper part of your legs should be at a 90 degree angle to the lower part.

Hold this position for about 5 seconds. Then slide your back up the wall again. Repeat the exercise 5 times.

As your back and leg muscles strengthen, you should increase the length of time you hold the squat position. Eventually, you should be able to hold it for intervals as long as 1 minute.

Side Stretch

The side stretch is a relatively simple exercise that helps to limber up the muscles in your sides.

To do this exercise, stand with your feet 12 to 18 inches apart. Extend one arm directly over your head. Your other arm should remain by your side.

To do the stretch, bend gently to the side. Stretch as far as you comfortably can without straining. Be sure to keep your hips still and your body facing forward. Hold the stretch for about 5 seconds. Then return to the starting position. Repeat this stretch 5 times. Then switch arms and stretch the other side.

Exercising At Home

Some exercises that help strengthen and protect your back are more appropriate for your workout at home or in the gym. Examples include the knee to chest stretch, the hamstring stretch, the hip flexor stretch, and the curl-up.

Knee To Chest Stretch

The knee to chest stretch is a convenient stretching exercise that can be done at home or in the gym. This exercise will stretch your lower back and buttocks muscles.

Begin by lying down on your back on the floor. Your knees should be bent, and your feet should be flat on the floor. To perform the stretch, bring one knee up to your chest and hold it with both hands.

Gently pull your leg closer to your chest to fully stretch the muscles, but do not bounce your leg or tug too hard. This could strain or even tear a muscle.

Hold the stretch for about 5 seconds. Then gently lower your leg back to the starting position.

Repeat the stretch with the other leg. Continue alternating the stretch with each leg until you have stretched both legs 5 times.

Hamstring Stretch

A hamstring exercise will help you stretch the muscles in the backs of your thighs. Flexible hamstring muscles allow you to bend your legs while placing a minimum amount of stress on your back.

To stretch your hamstring muscles, begin by sitting on the floor. Place your legs straight out in front of you, with your feet no more than 6 inches apart.

Bend forward slowly, reaching for your toes. Stretch as far forward as you comfortably can. You should feel a gentle stretch in the muscles in the backs of your legs, but do not bounce or over-stretch.

Hold the stretch for about 5 seconds. Then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat the exercise 5 to 10 times to be sure that your hamstrings are well warmed up.

Hip Flexor Stretch

Another set of muscles that you can exercise to help protect your back are the hip flexors. The hip flexor muscles are the muscles in the front of your hips.

Stretching these muscles may help prevent swayback, which is a condition that occurs when the spine is unnaturally arched backwards.

To stretch the hip flexors, kneel on one knee and extend the other leg in front of you.Your knee should be bent, and your foot should be flat on the floor. Next, gradually shift your weight onto your front foot. You should feel the stretch in your hip flexors.

Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. Then relax the muscle and return to the starting point. Repeat the stretch again. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Then return to the starting position. Switch legs and repeat the exercise twice on the other leg.


Strong stomach and abdominal muscles take a lot of strain off of your back. To strengthen these muscles without straining your back, you can try a curl-up

First, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Using your abdominal muscles, slowly lift your head and shoulders from the floor.

Your arms should extend to the sides of your calves. Be sure to keep your lower back flat on the floor. Your shoulders should not rise significantly off of the floor.

Hold this raised position for about 5 seconds. Breathe naturally. Do not hold your breath. Then, slowly lower your head and shoulders to the floor.

Repeat the sequence 5 times. Exercising should become a regular part of your program to keep your back healthy and safe.

General Considerations

Basic back exercises do not require any special equipment, and they can be done just about anywhere.

It is important to exercise regularly to keep your muscles toned. However, it is also important to remember that you should never do an exercise if it causes pain.

If a stretch or an exercise produces pain, check with a doctor before resuming your exercise program. In fact, you should always check with a doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Remember, your back is crucial to just about any type of work. Without a healthy back, even the simplest task, such as sitting or standing, can become a painful experience.

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