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Lower back pain affects most of us at some
stage of our lives and is one of the most
common ailments troubling mankind. It may
be referred to by a number of names such as
slipped disc, arthritis, lumbago and when it
causes shooting pain down the leg – sciatica.
Lower back pain often commences without
any warning and for no apparent reason.
It can then interfere with simple activities
at work in addition to preventing one from
getting a good night’s sleep. Then just as
mysteriously as the pain started – it subsides
and the episode is quickly forgotten.
Humans have evolved a spine that is held
in a vertical position during working and
waking hours, and bears the compressive
weight of the body it supports. As the role
of the spine is to protect the spinal cord and
bear weight, the vertebrae have adapted
discs to support heavier weights and
curvature to provide better flexibility and
The part of the spine located above
the junction with the pelvis is where the
most strain occurs on the back. From
examination, this part of the spine
dominates in terms of injury location.
Mechanical pain causes
Despite common belief, lower back pain is
not caused by cold weather; it is caused by
mechanical strains. Many tasks within the
cleaning industry have the potential to strain
the lower back and these ultimately need to
be identified, assessed and controlled.
Mechanical pain can be caused when
overstretching results in damage where
a force causes excessive strain upon the
lower back. This may occur as a result of
emptying bins, particularly where the bin is
heavier than the cleaner initially anticipates.
When soft tissues around a joint are
overstretched the ligaments are the first
to cause pain. Often these ligaments are
essentially ‘retaining walls’ for the spines
discs that absorb shock between the
vertebrae. The extent to which the discs
become involved may influence the pain
When a ligament surrounding a disc is
damaged to a level where the disc loses its
ability to properly absorb shock the discs
outer wall may become weakened. This may
allow the soft content of the disc to bulge
outwards. If it bulges far enough it may
contact the sciatic nerve and this may result
in symptoms involving the leg. As a result of
disc bulging and distortion then poor spinal
alignment may lead to extreme pain.
Six steps to ensure
Step one: Planning the lift is crucial. It is
important that a load is assessed considering
its size and shape. It is important to also
think about where the load will be placed and
whether there will be any obstructions. Any
need for assistance should also be evaluated,
alongside task specific risk assessment.
Step two: It is important to consider the
best way to lift, taking time to account for
the following points;
• Keep your feet apart with an aim to
maintain good balance
• Aim to minimise lower back bending and
• Lift smoothly avoiding jerkiness while
keeping the back straight
• Always watch your step and remain aware
of your surroundings.
Step three: The whole hand should
have a strong and secure grip. If gloves are
required they should be provided and used.
Step four: The load should be pulled close
to the body. It is important that one holds
the centre of gravity of the lifted object as
close to the abdomen as possible, using the
long arm muscles to handle the load. It is
Where possible a risk assessment should always
give consideration to the use of a hand trolley.
A hand trolley is a fantastic and cost effective
manual handling tool for reducing frequency,
duration and weight factors during manual
A risk assessment should always give
consideration to the use of a shoulder strap
when using blowers. Risk assessment should also
extend to other alike risk control measures such
as comfortable support mechanisms on backpack
Manual handling and lower back pain
Dr Denis Boulaim* explores
lower back pain in the cleaning
industry and shares correct lifting
techniques that may reduce the risk
of such an episode.
important to note that a 10kg bin held at
80cm from the body has an equivalent load
of 50kg held close to the body.
Step five: If one feels that something is
too awkward or heavy then a mechanical
lifting aid should be used. Where no
such devices are available it is important
one finds a partner as similar height as
possible and completes a team lift. Clear
communication is vital in the coordination
of a team lift – particularly where there are
more than two lifters involved.
Step six: It is important to warm up
prior to manual handling activity and where
possible aim to alternate heavy lifting tasks
with lighter ones. Warm up exercises are
also very important prior to and during
activity. It may pay dividends to engage
the services of an occupational therapist to
develop a warm up program suited to the
work being completed.
On a final note, I cannot emphasise
enough the importance of risk assessment
with manual handling which should be both
task and site specific. There is a quote that
states, “Back pain is just youth leaving the
body”, maybe there is some truth to the
quote, however, within an aging industry
it is yet another reason to focus heavily
upon manual handling with the purpose of
controlling and reducing its risks.
* Dr Denis Boulaim is National Risk
Manager of Broadlex Services Pty Ltd
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