There are some things that make your spine tingle that are exciting and good for you, but more often than not, if you experience a tingling in your back it is a sign of something bad. We are talking about back pain, herniated discs or worse. Back injuries are probably not something you immediately associate with laboratory research. However, there are plenty of ways to injure your back if you work in a laboratory, and back injuries are among the most common reasons for lost work time.1 Working in research facilities often involves heavy lifting and possible overexertion and, for production labs, a real potential for repetitive strain and overuse. Lifting and loading chemical containers, sample containers, and sample trays, or moving equipment such as gas cylinders, vacuum pumps, and waste containers, are just a few operations that present a risk for injury. That is why back injuries are still one of the most common hazards faced each day by this sector of workers.
Did you know that during the period between 2003 and 2008, back injuries involving days away from work averaged more than 250,000 cases per year?1 The majority of these cases were due to overexertion and, specifically, overexertion during lifting. The median for days away from work was six, which is a significant amount of lost time. In fact, back injuries are the second leading reason, behind the common cold, for absenteeism in the general workforce. And it is estimated that about 80 percent of adults will experience a back injury during their lifetime.2 At least one source estimated the cost in 2003 for each low-back injury to be $22,800. Given these statistics and the potential for serious injury and lost work time, it is appropriate to provide pointers on proper lifting techniques that will help avoid these costly injuries.
Safe lifting techniques
Using proper lifting and handling methods will protect against injury. Applying good ergonomics and proper physics makes lifting work easier as well. Take a few moments to think about what you are going to lift and the effort that will be required. Repetition in and of itself is not the problem; it is repetition combined with poor posture, bad ergonomics, and improper force that produces stress and eventually leads to pain and injury. Following the basic steps of safe lifting techniques every time as presented below will help develop proper habits. So, let’s get started.
- First, and most important, take time to evaluate the load. If it appears too heavy or large or presents difficulty in grasping or holding, get help and do not attempt to lift it alone.
- Plan the path or route you will use to carry the load and inspect the entire length to ensure there is enough space and good footing. Make sure there are no housekeeping “issues” or obstacles that could trip you up.
- Prepare to lift the load by taking a good stance and making sure you are balanced. Ideally, place one foot next to the load and one slightly behind and about a shoulder width apart.
- Bend your knees to reach down to the load so you can use your legs to do the lifting and not your back. Do not stoop over, bending your back. Keep your back straight but not necessarily vertical. Tucking your chin toward your chest will help maintain a straight back.
- Ensure you have a firm and adequate grip on the load. Use your palms and fingers as the palms provide a more secure hold. Tuck your chin again to help straighten the back when preparing to make the lift.
- Lift the load using your legs, pushing out of the squat, and use your body weight to help get the load moving. The leg muscles are the largest and strongest in the body and should always be used for lifting heavy loads.
- Once standing, try to keep the load as close to your body as possible, both when lifting and when carrying, by keeping the arms and elbows tucked in as much as the load allows.
- When changing direction while carrying a load, never twist your body. Use your foot position and turn your whole body together with the load.
- Watch where you are going and have a spotter when in tight spaces or carrying an awkward load.
- Bend your knees again, reversing the lifting motion to safely lower the load. Resist the tendency to stoop, and make sure to keep your hands and feet clear when placing the load down.
Additional tips for team lifting
When loads are heavy or an awkward size or shape, the lifting is best performed by a team and not a single person. You are the person responsible for making that determination and the decision to seek assistance. Team lifting takes practice and coordination. Ideally, workers for team lifting should be about the same size and strength so balance is maintained during the lifting and carrying. Agree ahead of time which individual will lead and control the lifting to ensure all movements are properly coordinated. The load must be lifted and lowered at the same time by all team members or one may become injured. When carrying the load, walk out of step to maintain balance and control of the load.
Back injuries are a significant occupational hazard for laboratory workers. However, solving the problem is not difficult. Experience and research data show that training, Do Keep back straight (not vertical) while lifting. Tuck the chin to aid this. Press and lift with the legs (the largest and strongest muscles). Get help for heavy or large, awkward loads. Use mechanical equipment whenever possible. Don’t Stoop and use back muscles to do the lifting. Attempt to lift a load that is too heavy or awkward. Twist your torso while carrying a load. Try team lifting without good coordination. Do’s and Don’ts for Lifting and Carrying Loads Safely HEALTH & SAFETY HEALTH & SAFETY especially regular and frequent sessions, can definitely have a positive effect on reducing back injuries. By developing a comprehensive training program for your facility, you can avoid or minimize potential injuries.
Many online resources provide good recommendations for your injury prevention program. One good example is Washington State University’s web page, Back Injury Prevention.3 When developing your facility’s plan, be sure to include both engineering controls that involve facility design and specialized equipment and administrative controls that include employee screening, work protocols, and personnel training.
Engineering controls and facility design are two major components of a good prevention/control program. Perform a detailed evaluation of lifting tasks, especially repetitive ones, and try to design out as many manual operations as budget will allow. Automated equipment is available for many laboratory operations. Provide and use loaders, forklifts, and hoists where applicable for heavy-lifting tasks. In addition, handcarts and dollies should be available for employees to use as appropriate to ease material handling.
Administratively, you must develop and implement policies to address safe lifting. Training is the most important thing you can do. Education and training of employees is a large part of preventing injuries. Every worker must clearly understand the risks and possess knowledge of safe lifting techniques, proper work practices, and use of material handling equipment.
Another administrative control to use is the pre-placement screening evaluation of employees for risk factors such as a previous back injury or another medical condition that is not conducive to heavy manual material handling. The right person for the job is as important as the right tool for the job.
Finally, no prevention program is complete without routine surveillance of work practices coupled with regular assessment, evaluation, and updating of the safety policies and work protocols. You just cannot assume that once you have developed a policy and training, every employee will follow it forever. Take the time to occasionally observe your workers and retrain as needed. Review the policies and procedures at least annually and keep them up to date. Now you are doing everything you can to keep your workers safe on the job.