When most people think of back injuries on the job, they imagine construction workers straining themselves while lifting pieces of heavy equipment, auto-mechanics hoisting new engines into a pickup trucks, or sanitation workers hoisting thousands of cans of garbage. But it is not just manual laborers who hurt their backs on the job. Not at all. One of the worst things for the human back is prolonged sitting — the only activity in which many office workers participate day after day.
“Whether you are sitting at a computer, making a bed, or taking an interview over the phone, there is always ergonomics involved in the way you sit, stand, and move,” says Dr. Michael Makowsky, medical director of the Corporate Health Center in Trenton. “Your posture doing anything affects your back-health.”
Makowsky hosts a free breakfast seminar, “Ouch, My Employees’ Aching Back,” on Thursday, April 6, at 7:30 a.m. at the Trenton Country Club. The seminar presents a background of back injuries, ways of dealing with pain management, the application of physical therapy, technical advances in the treatment of back injuries, and the tools and techniques used to manage back related pain. For more information or to register, call 609-278-5493.
Also presenting will be Dr. Adam Sackstein, director of the Pain Management Center; Dr. John Tydings and Dr. Haim Blecher, both specialists in disk replacements at Central Jersey Spine Associates; and Richard Stoneking, a physical therapist.
Every year, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, more than a million employees suffer back-related injuries on the job. These injuries account for roughly one out of every five injuries in the workplace and cost employers billions of dollars, both for the treatment of the injuries, as well as for the compensation of indemnity claims.
“The costs are certainly huge to employers as well as the employees who suffer the injuries and sometimes have to live with back pain for the rest of their lives,” says Makowsky. “But many employers don’t realize that there are precautions that can be taken that can significantly reduce the chances of their workers injuring themselves.”
Founded in 1994, the Corporate Health Center, located on Brunswick Drive in Trenton, is a service of Capital Health Center and is a facility that deals solely with work-related injuries and illnesses. “From one-third to half of all the work-related injuries we see are related to the back, meaning the neck, the mid-back, and the lower back,” says Makowsky, who stresses a preemptive approach to reducing back injuries. “In order to reduce that number, it is important for employers to investigate how various jobs are being performed by their employees.”
Makowsky, who has served as director of the Corporate Health Center for the past 10 years, presents seminars on a yearly basis to help meet the needs of area employers. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo and his medical degree from Indiana University, Purdue Medical Center in Indianapolis.
For employers looking for ways to decrease the chances of their employees suffering unexpected back-related injuries, Makowsky recommends the following precautions:
Watch how employees perform tasks. Whether in a factory, office, or a hospital, employers should be sensitive to ways to reduce back injuries. “At the hospital our nurses typically do a lot of lifting of patients up into bed, or out of bed and into a wheelchair, or on a stretcher,” says Makowsky. Their supervisors need to observe their technique. Are they letting their knees do the heavy lifting? Are they using lifts and similar mechanic aids correctly? Are they calling for a second person when they can’t safely handle a transfer themselves?
Investigate and take action. The best way to prevent job injuries is to take a common sense approach to the problem. Remember that although these solutions may cost a little more at the outset, they will potentially save big money in the long run. “What we are doing at the hospital to reduce back injuries is relying on a number of commercial mechanical devices, as well as to use lift teams that specialize in moving people.”
Educate. There are ways of educating people on proper stretching and strengthening of their backs. The employer can look at ways of doing things differently, by, for example, investigating whether there are ways to do a job without repeatedly bending over. “You can teach people how to bend properly, at the knees as opposed to bending the back,” says Makowsky. “You can also be sure workers are close enough to the person or object he or she is trying to lift. This can significantly reduce back strain.”
Teach safe sitting. While you might think that an employee who works eight hours a day nestled into a chair in front of a computer screen is safe from back problems, that is not the case. “These workers can have real problems if the computer is set too high or their seat is not high enough,” says Makowsky. “Anything you do, especially if it is done often enough and long enough, can cause back problems.”
Beware of weekend warriors. Sometimes it is almost impossible to distinguish whether a back injury occurred during a backyard football game on Sunday afternoon or in stacking boxes in the stock room on Monday morning. Since the employer will have a hard time determining — let alone proving — that the employee is not being truthful, he might do better to invest in education about good body mechanics, techniques that can be used in play as well as in work to prevent back injuries.
While back injuries are an ongoing concern for employers and employees, it is something that can be reasonably avoided with common sense and pre-planning. The payoff will be greater productivity and fewer costs for the employer, and a workforce free of chronic back pain. Says Makowsky: “We want to keep people healthy, or if they are injured, help the employee get back to work as soon as possible, without pain.”