Stress and musculoskeletal disorders are the two leading causes of work-related health problems which people report. This article considers back pain within the workplace.
Back pain is very common and can be caused or made worse by certain types of work such as heavy manual labour, repetitive lifting or pulling as well as poor posture. In the past, the most common reaction to back pain was bed rest, however, evidence now shows that bed rest does not help recovery and it is much better to keep active and continue with normal activities as far as possible.
Employers have a statutory duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. Employees have a corresponding duty to co-operate with their employer to enable the employer to meet this requirement. The following health and safety legislation is particularly relevant to back pain:
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations – require that all employers assess the risks to the health and safety of their employees while they are at work.
- The Manual Handling Operations Regulations – require employers to carry out a risk assessment on the manual handling tasks that pose a risk of injury.
- The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations – describe what employers need to do if their employees are regular users of display screen equipment.
- The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations – require employers to take actions to protect people against risks to their health and safety arising from exposure to vibration at work.
Employers can take a number of steps to reduce the risk of back pain in the workplace by:
- Using risk assessments to identify how harm to the back can be minimised and taking action where necessary;
- Considering how to make the job physically easier, for example, by providing mechanical lifting aids;
- Consulting regularly with employees on their health and wellbeing to help identify concerns and any developing trends;
- Taking action to address any outcomes from these discussions; and
- Responding promptly when an employee reports back pain.
Where an employee reports back pain, the employer should try to help them remain at work, perhaps by arranging for light duties or modified work. If the employee has been off work due to back pain, the employer should keep in touch with the employee and help them prepare for returning to work by, for example, providing transitional working arrangements such as a gradual increase in hours or allowing more time for tasks to be completed. Employers should record and analyse sickness absence to assess how much absence is due to back-related problems, and to highlight whether there are difficulties with specific tasks.
Employees also have a duty to look after their own health and safety, including their back. For example, employees should stay or become more physically active, try to take regular breaks, learn and follow the correct method of manual handling, avoid injury when working at a computer by having the right posture, and arranging their work station accordingly. Employees who are absent from work with back pain should keep in regular contact with their employer to keep them updated and discuss any reasonable adjustments which may be necessary on their return to work.
Further information on all aspects of health and safety is available from your local CAB or from the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) on their One-2-One Helpline 0800 0320 121 or by visiting their website at www.hseni.gov.uk.
Siobhan Harding is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice