Lifting Materials Can Hurt Your Back

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CPWR - The Center for Construction Research and Training

Summary Statement

Back injuries are common and expensive, but often avoidable with proper lifting techniques.

The first recorded back injury on a construction project happened nearly 4,800 years ago, in 2,780 B.C., to a worker in Egypt who probably injured his back helping to build the pyramids. The odds are he was doing heavy lifting. Today, one in four construction injuries are back injuries, mostly from manual materials handling.

Back injuries are expensive. One insurance company found that the average back injury cost about $8,300 in workers' compensation alone (in 1989), more than twice the average for all workers' comp claims.

In the United States, most back injuries in construction are from lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing, and pulling materials. In Australia, a group called BackWatch found evidence that manual materials handling is the main problem there, too, for six tasks or trades.

BackWatch looked at 212 workers' comp injury reports for form-work, scaffolding, concrete work, bricklaying, plumbing, and structural steel. More than 70% — 153 — of the injuries were from manual materials handling — lifting such things as forms, scaffold frames, bricks, cement bags, gas bottles, machines, and tools. The next highest number of injuries was 34 falls.

The survey was not scientific, but it showed again where changes are needed.

Some people claim that back injuries are to be expected, that most people have back problems from getting older or activities like sports. But workers who do a lot of heavy lifting or work in awkward postures — like stooping and bending — have much higher rates of back injury than other people.

To protect your back from injuries, these are some things you can do:
   • Exercise to warm up before work.
   • Have materials delivered close to where they will be used.
   • Store materials at waist height so you don't have to bend as much.
   • Use carts, dollies, forklifts, and hoists to move materials.
   • Use carrying tools with handles for wallboard and other odd-shaped loads.
   • Do not lift materials that weigh more than about 50 pounds by yourself. Get help.
   • Don't count on back belts to prevent injuries.
CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training has hazard alert pocket cards on back injuries — in English and Spanish.
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