One of the clichés we use in language is to call something “the backbone” of an entity. If a person is dependable and integral to holding an organization together, we call her the backbone of the company. It’s a compliment. It’s based on a vital component within our bodies: the spine. Our care of this central system is vital. Strangely, citizens in North America experience back problems that result in disability to an alarming extent. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a study that showed in 2013, the world’s top source and burden of disability is low back pain, and the world’s fourth highest source and burden of disability is neck pain. This disability was most burdensome in North America, according to the Foundation study.
To protect the spine from injury, workers have the responsibility to strengthen the muscles around it, reduce the potential for strains by maintaining flexibility, warm up muscles before work begins, and practice proper lifting and moving techniques.
The Department of Defense offers injury prevention strategies here, including proper lifting techniques.
Step 1. Plan the lift. (Ask for help if an object seems too heavy for one person.)
Step 2. Face the object directly; don’t twist at the trunk.
Step 3. Bend at your knees, not at your waist.
Step 4. Keep the load as close to your body as is safely possible.
Danielle Browne is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® with Vivecorp Inc., who offered ideas for warming up muscles before work begins.
“Chances are if you’re reading this, your job is physical in nature. Like an athlete who warms-up to prepare for a game, a warm-up prepares your body for the physical activity of your job. A warm-up is designed to increase your core temperature, improve coordination, elasticity and contractibility of muscles, and increase efficiency of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
“In short, it prepares your body (and brain) for the day ahead. Think of your body like a piece of taffy. If you try to bend taffy when it’s cold, it breaks. But if you spend a moment warming it up, it moves much more easily.
“When warming up, engage major muscle groups. Think dynamic movements (arm circles) vs. static movements (toe touch). Don’t feel like your warm-up needs to mimic your job function exactly—do movements to strengthen or correct muscle imbalances.”
Browne shared how warming up is a preventive measure.
“Most job functions and activities of daily living put a strain on the entire back—especially the lower back. But muscles of the back don’t work in a vacuum. They work in synergy with the rest of the body. Imbalances or weak areas anywhere in the body can cause injury, especially in the back.
“A good warm-up will include strengthening and range of motion exercises for posterior muscles which tend to be tight and weak, like the back and glutes. Anterior muscles, which tend to be overused and tight like the chest or quadriceps, need stretching movements to increase mobility. This warm-up strategy helps correct common imbalances to create a healthy posture and a stronger base for movement—the keys to back injury prevention.”
Browne also shared a good strategy for preventing muscles injury or strain throughout the work day.
“Muscles need a break, even those of conditioned athletes. Without breaks, muscles will begin to break down creating imbalances and overcompensation of other muscles, increasing the possibility of injury.
“Multiple studies across a variety of occupations show taking short breaks (micro-breaks) multiple times throughout the day improves physical performance and focus and decreases the occurrence of soft-tissue injuries. Micro-breaks are short—30 seconds to one minute—and help alleviate static positions or repetitive motions.
“The key to micro-breaks is taking them before pain and fatigue set in. If possible, schedule micro-breaks on the hour. Stand if you’ve been sitting, walk around if you’ve been standing in place, reverse the motion if you’ve been working repetitively.
“Even if you can’t schedule micro-breaks, think of areas in your day with natural pauses in the workflow. Use those pauses to perform the activities mentioned above. Even taking a few micro-breaks throughout the day will help.”
Take to heart the knowledge or practices gained from your natural workflow. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is giving researchers at the University of Waterloo new insights to help reduce wear-and-tear injuries and boost the productivity of skilled construction workers.
Studies using motion sensors and AI software have revealed expert bricklayers use previously unidentified techniques to limit the loads on their joints, and that’s knowledge that can now be passed on to apprentices in training programs.
“The people in skilled trades learn or acquire a kind of physical wisdom that they can’t even articulate,” said Carl Haas, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Waterloo.
The research shows master masons don’t follow the standard ergonomic rules taught to novices. Instead, they develop their own ways of working quickly and safely. Examples include more swinging than lifting of blocks and less bending of their backs.
“They’re basically doing the work twice as fast with half the effort—and they’re doing it with higher quality,” said Haas.
However you discover the right warm-up exercise, ergonomic functions or micro-break schedule for your job, notice that the emphasis is on working safely.