Oh, My Aching Back

by Janet L. Keyes, CIH

Sore back. Aching shoulders. Painful wrists. That’s the problem with getting older, isn’t it? It’s more likely to be the problem if you repeatedly ask more from your body than it can handle. Most of you have suffered through pains from overexertion. Rest, take ibuprofen for a day or two, and you’re ready to go again.

But what if you can’t rest? What if you need to keep lifting that awkward part to keep doing your job? Hammering a part? Holding a paint sprayer? Kneeling on a concrete floor? That little nagging ache that you can ignore one time becomes a big ache, difficult to ignore. The ibuprofen yields to stronger painkillers. The docs recommend surgery. You can’t do your job anymore. And those stronger painkillers have led to addiction. Depression sets in. And thoughts of suicide arise.

Far-fetched? No. Opioids, used for pain relief, can cause addiction. Those addicted are at higher risk for suicide. The construction industry has recently recognized this problem (see blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2021/09/14/opioids-in-construction/). The automotive repair industry doesn’t have the same high risk of suicide – but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problem. 

In fact, it makes good business sense to try to make work easier on your workers’ bodies. If work takes less effort, people can do more in the same amount of time. Efficiency and good ergonomics go hand-in-hand. Reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, and you save twice: you don’t pay for those expensive back or shoulder injuries and employees can get more done.

How can you do that? 

Look at your job flow. Where are parts kept? Do employees need to go onto a mezzanine to fetch a part? That takes time – but also means carrying parts up and down stairs, a task that could easily lead to strains. 

Look at work height. Do you provide vehicle lifts in good condition? Or do employees need to jack up vehicles and rely on jack stands and creepers. Do employees need to stand on rickety stepstools and stretch to reach taller vehicles? Or do you provide sturdy and stable platforms?  Can they be adjusted to accommodate the different heights of your employees and the different heights of vehicles? One of the goals with good ergonomic design is to have neutral postures, where employees don’t have to bend or twist or stretch to do their jobs.

Look at what other industries and other companies have done to reduce wear and tear. An auto body technician recently showed us his Racatac kneeling sitting creeper, developed, he said, for the flooring industry. It let him kneel comfortably while sanding the side of a car. He could have kneeled on the floor, but that starts hurting pretty quickly and can lead to chronic knee problems. He could have used kneepads, but they’re not always comfortable, and don’t provide the mobility of the creeper. 

But your technicians provide their own tools! True – but you’re the one who pays the workers’ comp premiums and who has to scramble for workers if one is out because of low back pain. So, it is likely to your benefit to subsidize equipment or tools that make work physically easier.

Watch your workers, and talk to them. Look at their body positions when they work. Does your painter’s arms get tired from holding the spray gun? What tasks make their backs or shoulders ache? Do they have ideas to make work easier?

We know what factors prevent musculoskeletal disorders such as sprains, strains, back injuries and shoulder pain. 

  Design the job so employees don’t need to lift too much. It isn’t just the weight of objects that determines how much they can safely lift. It’s also the shape and where it’s being lifted to and from. Lifting a 50-pound box with handholds off the back of a delivery truck is easier than lifting a bulky car part with nothing to grab onto from the floor. 

  Take advantage of people’s power zone, that area between knees and chest, extending out the length of the forearm. That’s where work should be done, because that’s where people have the most strength and flexibility. That’s also where heavy objects should be stored.

  Encourage neutrality. A neutral posture – head up, looking forward; arms down at sides – puts the least amount of stress on the body. If tools force wrists to bend, the user is more likely to develop wrist problems. If employees need to work overhead, shoulder and neck problems become likely.

  Make the work easier. If it takes less force, produces less vibration, and minimizes repetitive motions, employees will work more comfortably. If they’re more comfortable, they can do more. They’re happier. Productivity goes up, and you’re happier.

Many of the workplace safety measures we want to see don’t provide an immediate payback. You won’t see the hearing damage caused by noise until years later. You don’t see the fires that didn’t occur.  Ergonomic improvements are different – even if you can’t see the back aches you prevented, you can see the improvements in productivity. Good ergonomics = work smarter, not harder.

For questions on ergonomics or other safety related questions, contact Carol Keyes at CHESS at (651) 481-9787.

Want more? Check out the October 2023 issue of AASP-MN News!