Back pain is the leading cause of sickness absence from work. In 1995, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated that it cost British employers over 11 million working days and some £5 billion.
The cost to the NHS has been estimated at £48 million a year. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, these injuries are preventable, and the costs of preventive measures are far below the costs of lost production, injury compensation and social and welfare costs associated with back injuries.
Causes of back pain
By far the biggest cause of back injury at work is manual handling tasks – lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling and holding loads.
The HSE has produced detailed guidance for employers, to help them meet their legal duties to minimise the risks to workers from manual handling tasks.
But it can also result from poor work postures, caused by inadequate or poorly adjusted furniture or other equipment and made worse by poor job design that does not offer workers sufficient opportunities to alter their work activities and posture.
Prolonged driving duties can also have an adverse effect on back well-being, as can driving over rough terrain.
Preventing back injuries at work
There is a lot that employees can do, working with local PCS safety reps, to minimise the risks of suffering back or other musculoskeletal injuries through work.
Using a telephone
If you use a telephone for long periods, at the same time as using a keyboard and/or taking written notes, you may be at risk. Consider whether a telephone headset – rather than a handset – would help you work more comfortably. Ask your local PCS rep to approach management – or speak to your own line manager.
Set up your chair correctly
Ensure that your chair is set up correctly – and is adequate to enable you to achieve a comfortable working position.
Sit right back in the chair and ensure that it provides enough support in the lumbar area of your back – you may need to adjust the height or angle of the back rest.
Arm rests, if fitted, should not prevent you from getting close enough to your desk to carry out your work without the need to lean forwards.
The seat should not cut into the underside of your thighs. If you cannot rest your feet flat on the floor, when the chair is adjusted to the correct working height, ask for a footrest. If the chair does not 'fit' you, ask your line manager – either directly or via your local PCS rep, to consider replacing it with a more suitable chair.
Keep moving – sitting or standing in one posture for several hours is not what the body was designed for. Take every opportunity to move about and change your posture.
Remember, there is a legal duty on employers to ensure changes of posture during the working day for computer users.
Using a mouse
If you use a mouse extensively in your work, move your keyboard slightly to the side, to allow you to rest your arm on the desk and have a relaxed arm posture when placing a hand on the mouse.
If you have to handle loads at work, ensure that your employer has carried out a proper risk assessment and has taken all necessary measures to minimise the risk of injury.
If you are unsure about this, ask your local PCS rep. Follow any training or instructions that you have been given on how to lift and handle loads safely.
If your work involves long periods of driving, or if you have to drive across rough terrain regularly, ensure that the vehicle offers suitable and sufficient lumbar support, that you can take regular breaks on long journeys, to get out and alter your posture, that rough terrain driving is only done at slow speed, to minimise jolting.
There are legal requirements on employers, under the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005, to control whole body vibration, caused by rough terrain driving.
The 1992 Manual Handling Operations Regulations set a clear framework for employers to manage the many risks associated with the lifting, carrying and otherwise moving loads. There are three steps to controlling the risks.
- Avoiding hazardous manual handling, wherever possible, perhaps by introducing equipment to handle loads
- Assessing the risks of injury from hazardous manual handling that cannot be avoided
- Reducing the risks identified to the lowest level reasonably practicable.
Risk assessments need to take into account the specifics of the task being undertaken, the environment in which the task is performed and the individual doing the work.
No one should be expected to undertake a hazardous manual handling task until the risk assessment has been completed and necessary risk reduction action has been taken.
This will usually include training for those performing manual handling tasks in how to do them safely.
What to do if you are experiencing back pain
The first priority is to report the issue to your PCS safety rep. They can advise you further.
Report the symptoms to your line manager as well – preferably in writing. If you think there is a work-related cause, get it noted in the accident book.
If you are covered by the Civil Service Pension Scheme ask about additional benefits (including extended sick leave provisions) for work-related injuries. Other schemes may offer similar benefits.
Go to see your doctor – and tell them about the work you do and your symptoms.
Current medical advice tends to be against the idea of complete rest but they may advise you to avoid significant lifting and carrying tasks. If so, speak to your employer, with the support of your local rep, about a temporary change of duties.
If your back injury is caused by work, there are two possible sources of compensation – industrial injury benefit and by suing your employer.
PCS Legal Services Department can give advice about initiating a claim for damages. Costs for initial consultation with our solicitors are usually covered by PCS.
Further information and resources on protecting backs from injury and other issues identified in the Lighten the Load campaign can be found on the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work website.
UK-specific information on tackling musculoskeletal risks is available on the HSE web pages.