Protect Your Back at Work

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on June 17, 2019

Quick Facts

  • Work-related injuries result more often from repetitive strain than from a single incident
  • Correct posture and proper ergonomics can help prevent injury
  • These tips are part of the training that Carilion Clinic employees take every year

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Every day, we move in ways that put us at risk of a back injury. In just a second, we might hurt ourselves by lifting a heavy object the wrong way, or trip and fall.

It’s not a far-fetched notion. About 80 percent of U.S. adults report back pain at some time in their life. It’s also the leading reason for missing work and job-related disability, accounting for 264 million lost work days every year.

“Many people injure themselves by lifting, pulling or pushing incorrectly at work,” said Richard Weiss, M.D., M.B.A., chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Carilion Clinic. “Others hurt themselves by slipping, tripping or falling.”

You can injure your back in a single incident, but injuries typically occur due to a repetitive activity over time. That’s why it’s so important to make a habit of proper form and posture.

Back injuries can be very painful and take a long time to heal. While most injuries do fully heal over time, 10 to15 percent of back injuries can become a chronic source of pain.

“You should do everything you can to prevent injuring your back in the first place,” said Dr. Weiss.

Want to know the techniques that health care pros follow to keep their backs safe? Follow the advice below—it comes from internal training that all Carilion Clinic employees learn and adhere to—including Dr. Weiss!

Push, Don't Pull
As a general principle, it’s always better to push than pull. But if you must pull a load, you should know how to do it safely. Here’s the proper technique:

  •  Clear your path of obstructions
  •  Tighten your abdominal muscles (and keep them tight) to help maintain your body alignment
  •  Bend your knees and face the object
  •  Place one foot in front of the other
  •  Pull the object with your arms as you shift your weight to your back leg
  •  Lean back keeping your arms straight so that your whole body, and not just your back, is pulling the object

Why is pushing better than pulling? Because it uses your leg muscles, which are stronger than your arm muscles. Also, when you pull, the load you’re pulling could end up running over your feet.

If the item you want is farther than 10 inches away, use a stool or other tool to close the gap before reaching for it.

Remember the 10-20 Reach
Another cause of back injuries is reaching incorrectly. When you reach high up in a closet, from the front seat of your car to the back or across a long desk, you may be reaching too far. 

How far you are reaching should affect how often you reach. For example, Carilion Clinic's training recommends reaching for something that is 20 inches or more away rarely, if at all—only if you absolutely have to.

  • Within 10 inches: reach often
  • From 10 to 20 inches: reach sometimes
  • More than 20 inches: reach rarely

Rather than risk an injury, it is better to use a secure stepstool to reach high up in that closet, or get out of the car and open the back door to more easily get that item you left on the back seat.

It’s also a good idea to make a habit of not twisting your back while reaching and not reach to lift a heavy object higher than your shoulders.

If you do hurt yourself, call your primary care provider or visit an urgent care center such as VelocityCare. Prompt attention might help prevent an injury from becoming a source of chronic pain.