Back injuries

11 August 2004
Back injuries

The problem Last year, backache at work cost businesses 11 million working days due to absenteeism, representing a cost of £500m to business. Catering and hotel work contributes to a high number of musculoskeletal disorders, especially to the lower back.

Employees are often unaware that their actions could lead to excruciating back pain, resulting in time off work and placing financial and logistical burdens on their employers.

Employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that their staff are not put at risk in the workplace, and must take reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees while at work. The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992, which implement the Manual Handling of Loads Directive, came into effect on 1 January 1993 and apply to all manual handling activities with a risk of injury.

These regulations impose duties on employers, the self-employed and employees. Employers must avoid all hazardous manual handling activity where this is reasonably practical.

If it is not, they must assess the risks in relation to the nature of the task, the load, the working environment and the capabilities of the handler, and take appropriate action to reduce the risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable. Employees must follow appropriate work systems introduced by their employer to promote safety when handling loads.

Expert advice

In order to reduce absenteeism in the workplace, companies need to spend time with staff assessing the risks associated with their day-to-day activities and how their actions can result in back pain. Using specialist companies with highly qualified staff to carry out specific manual-handling assessment and training programmes is one of the most effective ways of gathering and disseminating this information.

Sending employees on specialist courses takes pressure off employers and provides them with the confidence that their workforce is completely aware of how to prevent and manage back injury if it occurs, ultimately resulting in a reduction in sick leave due to backache.

Courses can also be tailored around individual companies and their employees and their specific roles.

Check list
To control manual handling risks, employers should:

  • Assess the layout of the cellar, bar, kitchen or office to see if the amount of lifting or carrying can be reduced.
  • Avoid the need for hazardous manual handling whenever possible.
  • Assess the risk of injury from any hazardous manual handling that cannot be avoided.
  • Use mechanical aids to make tasks easier, such as hoists, litter-picking arms, four-wheel trolleys, and false bottoms for deep sinks.
  • Store heavy items on shelves at waist height.
  • Provide health and safety information, instruction, training and supervision.
  • Ensure that work stations are correctly laid out. Make sure staff sit with the computer directly in front of them, so that their spines remain straight and their keyboards and screens are all in line. They should also be encouraged to take frequent breaks from sitting at the computer throughout the day.

Employees should: - Follow appropriate systems of work.

  • Make proper use of equipment provided to minimise the risk of injury.
  • Co-operate with the employer on health and safety matters. If a staff member fails to use a hoist that has been provided, they are putting themselves at risk of injury. In the event of an accident, the employer is unlikely to be liable.

Beware! Failure to take reasonable steps to safeguard staff against the risks of manual handling could result in a criminal prosecution, as unsafe working practices could lead to an employee suing for personal injury.

In addition to the legal responsibility, the employer also has an implied responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure that the health and safety of their employees is not put at risk, which means that an employer might be found liable for their actions or failure to act even if they are not written in law.

Kathryn Hill
Sketchley Hall
Tel: 01455 890023

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