The most common musculoskeletal disorder caused by manual handling is work-related lower back injuries and pain. Non-specific lower back pain has a significant impact on productivity, quality of life and ability to work .
In the US alone, there have been over 730,000 cases involving injuries to the back over the last 5 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Several factors including anthropometric characteristics, the nature and severity of physical work, working postures, and methods of manual lifting/handling have been linked to the development of workplace back injuries.
Once lower back pain has occurred it can be challenging to treat, and the adverse effects of some analgesics can impact alertness or cognition – treatment options are not always satisfactory . Considering this fact together with health and socioeconomic consequences, implementing preventive interventions in the workplace is therefore a best practice. Prevention of pain is generally preferable to its treatment.
According to a number of the risk assessment tools, (LUBA, RULA, REBA) a twisting angle of more than 30 degrees is considered to be risky for the development of musculoskeletal injuries . Twisting in the lower back is very dangerous, as this section of the spine is not designed for this type of movement. As a result of twisting, surrounded muscles go into a protective spasm to prevent the spine from damage, causing low back pain.
Static postures increase the load on muscles and tendons compared to dynamic postures. These static positions may reduce blood flow to the muscles, thus preventing the body from engaging in the natural process of restoration and repair. Holding an extreme or awkward position exacerbates these effects.
In most cases, repeated or sustained positions and activities over many hours, day after day, make the musculoskeletal system more prone to injury. Several back injuries could be prevented if the movement pattern is noticed and changed in time. Analysing the biomechanics of spinal movements and increasing the movement awareness of workers is required to get a better understanding where the risk comes from.
Dysfunctional movement patterns performed by workers lead to issues in their body, including misaligned posture. Whether these movements are repetitive, awkward, frequent, overloaded, overused, they have the potential to result at some stage during their career as a problem. Not only can dysfunctional movement patterns cause injury or pain, the reason this problem can be so insidious is that it can happen very slowly, and overtime can result in body posture asymmetry. Once a person’s posture is out of alignment, tightness occurs in areas that require flexibility to perform certain tasks and thus injuries can show up at any stage over a worker’s life cycle.
Preventative Measures – Movement Awareness
Movement awareness and self-reflection are both essential tools to implement into lower back injury prevention training. Without proper awareness or proprioception  (the ability to be able to sense where any part of the body is positioned at any time) of our own bodies, there is limited ability to change faulty patterns, giving rise to increased chances of back injuries in the workplace. A study published by Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences Journal in 2015 proves the overall movement awareness levels of workers within the material manual handling sector to be only at a moderate level and encourages organizations to take responsibility to increase these results and help reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders amongst workers.
Furthermore, any injuries either undertaken at the workplace, during sport or at home have an impact on proprioception and inhibit the brain’s ability to process the sensory information that extends from the impaired joint or muscle and therefore require check in, reassessing or retraining after an event. Job/task variations that require new movement behaviour are also related opportunities and require training of this awareness to prevent new injuries arising from a not yet familiar job role. When dealing with well embedded long-standing faulty movement patterns or posture that overtime may cause injury, ongoing coaching in this area can help break into these patterns and create healthier pathways.
Any learning tools that augment movement awareness are the key to effective back injury prevention training. Disciplines that incorporate reminders, biofeedback, in-situ micro-learning, reflective processing, and cleverly integrated corrective and simple awareness exercises are some pedagogies to help the journey of reorganizing the neural pathways to realign muscles, joints and balance. Workplace learning around proprioception should be continual with monthly or biyearly reminders and retraining as well as check ins after injury or job role changes to prevent faulty movement patterns seeping in before they become embedded and are harder to shift. Providing workers with education on a regular basis to advance this promotes a far greater chance of moving safely, improving performance and preventing back injuries over the lifespan of a career.
Developing this sensory faculty can contribute to attenuating workplace back injuries. When training the body to change long standing habitual incorrect movement patterns, recovering from injury to prevent reoccurrence, (or progression into chronic stages) to move in a safe way or by simply acquiring the ability to assess personal capability of task performance; harbouring proprioception is essential .
AI-driven technologies have the potential to give workers the information they need to learn about their bodies and reprogram pain related dysfunctional movement patterns. The hazardous movements that are repetitive or excessive that aggravate and be the cause of injury or chronic pain can be self-monitored and tracked. Biofeedback provides workers with information not only on how well they are performing these movements but how many times a day and when they are at risk due to fatigue. A preventative training measure at large, acting before an injury happens that is caused by the accumulative effect of movements, not just one movement.
The data can assist workers who are not sure about their movements or how to alter them and can initiate the conversations to investigate what needs to be done to reduce the risk, i.e., targeted safe handling training, environmental changes etc.
The cost of preventative measures pales in comparison to the financial and livelihood cost of workplace back injuries in the workplace. The value of investment for organizations provides worth across all areas of business –better employee well-being and engagement inadvertently increases business performance.
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