The Smart Patient's Guide to
Managing Pain in the Workplace

High-Risk Jobs: Is Your Job Putting Your Spine at Risk?

This article was originally published on SpineUniverse, a sister publication to Practical Pain Management.

Many occupations place workers at high risk for back injury. You might be surprised to learn how extensive the list is! If you have suffered a work-related neck or back injury, you know the cost is measured by more than lost wages. The impact on employees, employers, and the economy is staggering.

In a report published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2003 there were 4.4 million private industry cases of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses. Of these cases, more than 50% lost time from work, transferred to a different job, or restricted work activity. Granted, not all 4.4 million cases were spine-related injuries. However, in an earlier report, the Bureau revealed some 880,000 cases were back pain-related injuries.

Information from the World Health Organization's International Labour Office reveals the problem is global. The organization lists "musculoskeletal diseases" as common and part of 268 million non-fatal workplace accidents in which employees miss at least 3 workdays. They foresee workforce changes during the next 15 years to include younger (age 15 to 24) and older workers (age 60 plus). Sadly, both these age groups incur a higher incidence of job-related accidents than other age groups.

Risky Business for Some Workers
To compile the list of risky occupations, occupational safety and health experts analyze many factors including job requirements and the work environment. Heavy physical work, forceful and lifting movements, bending and twisting, awkward work postures, whole body vibration, and static work postures (standing, sitting) compound the risks to workers.

Two occupations lead the list of jobs placing workers at highest risk for neck and back injury; construction and nursing home workers, including nurses. Workers in both settings share the tendency to underreport work-related injuries. Unfortunately, some workers fear they will lose their job and can't afford to take time off.

Construction Workers: Employees who work at a construction site spend much time repeatedly lifting, bending, carrying, pulling, and tugging. Repetitive movements lead to overuse injuries and back pain is extremely common. Sources report more than 30% of workers miss time because of neck and back sprain or strain. Construction personnel who climb ladders or work on scaffolds are at risk for falling. Serious spine injuries from falls can cause disability and are sometimes life-threatening.

Nursing Home Workers and Nurses: The population as a whole is growing older which, in part, accounts for the growing number of nursing homes,and employment opportunities. Nursing home workers are at high risk for back pain and spine injury. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 80% of all back and shoulder injuries result from moving patients. Transferring a patient between their bed, bathtub, and toilet requires lifting, carrying, holding, pulling, pushing, and turning.

Warehouse Workers: Working in a warehouse often entails lifting and forceful movements, bending, twisting, carrying, and awkward body positions. Some warehouse jobs require truck driving or operating industrial vehicles that causes whole-body vibration. Prolonged exposure to vibration often causes backache and soreness leading to lost work time.

Dentists and Surgeons: Both professions require prolonged standing, stooping, bending, and awkward body positioning. This work can be mentally intense and may temporarily divert the doctor's attention away from poor posture or body positions that contribute to neck and back pain.

Landscapers and Gardeners: The American Chiropractic Association includes landscapers in their top 10 list of jobs that cause back pain. Gardening places the worker at risk for cumulative trauma disorders; the body's response to overuse. Hedge trimming, tree pruning, and planting involve lifting, reaching, bending, and stooping. Repeated movement can lead to overuse back injury.

Repetitive use of hand tools causes painful disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and thoracic outlet syndrome. Thoracic outlet syndrome is nerve and blood vessel compression between the neck and shoulder.

Store Checkout Personnel: Grocery and retail store checkout work requires workers to stand in one place for a long time. Bagging items and lifting heavy bags can cause neck and back pain. More than 50% of checkout workers complain of back pain.

Other "At Risk" Professions

  • Airline crew (pilots, baggage handlers)
  • Assembly line workers
  • Bakers
  • Bus and cab drivers
  • Cable and telephone line installers
  • Carpenters, electricians, plumbers
  • Carpet installers and cleaners
  • Dry cleaners
  • Emergency medical technicians
  • Farmers (agricultural, dairy)
  • Firefighters and police
  • Janitors
  • Mechanics
  • Office personnel (eg, telemarketers, file clerks, computer operators)
  • Professional athletes (eg, golfers, quarterbacks)

Preventive Solutions 
You may not be able to change your occupation, but there are steps you can take to help prevent neck and back injuries. The links below provide access to important information about workplace ergonomics and safety. Do your part to be proactive to help reduce your workplace risk for neck and back injury, and share what you learn with co-workers and management.

Updated on: 04/29/19
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