Back injuries, especially those affecting the lower back, are the most common injury in construction. Lower back pain is a leading cause of lost workdays and disability.
Many construction workers develop lower back pain as a result of tasks that require excessive force, such as lifting, and prolonged awkward positions or repetitive motions, such as tying rebar. The resulting pain can range from a dull, constant, burning ache to a sudden, sharp sensation that radiates into the legs and feet and can be incapacitating.
While it can be debilitating, lower back pain isn’t always serious. As previously discussed in Lifelines, rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) and over-the-counter medications, including acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin can often help someone recover in a matter of weeks. Lower back pain often gets better on its own over time with proper rest. But sometimes lower back pain lingers. If it continues past three months, it’s considered chronic. In these instances, physical therapy and complementary health approaches, including chiropractic care and massage therapy, can often help people manage. Surgery is usually a last resort as there is no guarantee it will be effective. When it comes to lower back pain, there’s no silver bullet. If you experience chronic lower back issues, it’s wise to try different solutions and do what works best for you and your recovery.
“There is a clear link between chronic pain and a reduced quality of life for workers. Pain impacts not only a person’s physical health, but their mental health as well,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “It’s critical that we keep LIUNA members safe, healthy and able to earn a good living for themselves and their families. One way to do that is by taking the necessary steps to reduce risk for lower back pain.”
Other Causes of Back Pain
As many people know from experience, sometimes lower back pain can seem to develop out of nowhere. This is especially true among older workers, those who are overweight and those with sedentary lifestyles. Sitting is especially hard on the lower back because it puts excess pressure on the joints, muscles and discs. Research finds that 80 percent of adults will experience lower back pain at some point in their lifetime. The first episode usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 50 and is often a byproduct of aging. As people grow older, flexibility and muscle tone decrease and discs dry out, making them brittle and more susceptible to injury. The senior years are also when common conditions that can lead to back pain, like sciatica and spinal stenosis, are more likely to develop.
What Can Employers Do?
As an employer, do you think about workers’ back pain during site planning and design? You should. A construction site designed with ergonomics in mind can help reduce the risk for back injuries among employees. For example, to reduce back strain from lifting and awkward positions, materials should be stored close to where they will be used and accessible without having to reach overhead. Workers should also be trained on how to lift and carry materials safely, when to get assistance with lifting, how to recognize situations where they could get hurt and to speak up when they see a dangerous situation. They should also be educated on what to do if they do develop lower back pain.
All workplace injuries, including lower back injuries, can potentially contribute to the opioid epidemic because workers who are suffering from pain are often prescribed these powerful drugs and some become addicted. When workers are aware of all of the non-addictive options for pain management, they can devise a treatment plan with their health care provider that does not involve being prescribed a highly addictive opioid, which could show up on a drug test and possibly get them taken off a job. Awareness of all the treatment options can reduce their risk for becoming addicted to opioids.
The LHSFNA’s OSH Division can provide guidance for designing a worksite that can help protect worker safety and health. This includes an on-site evaluation. For more information call 202-628-5465. The Fund has also developed a number of materials that can educate workers and signatory contractors on how to reduce the risk for back injuries and manage pain. These include the Laborers’ Guide to Preventing Sprains & Strains in Construction pamphlet and the Exploring Options to Manage Pain: Therapies and Mind-Body Practices pamphlet. Order these and other materials by going to www.lhsfna.org and clicking on Publications.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]