Over the past 10 years of working in workplace injury prevention, the magical “safe lifting technique” is always something that is discussed, and for good reason. This is because a high percentage of workplace injuries are caused by workers lifting objects.
However, many worksites have unrealistic expectations of how they want workers to move when lifting. So, I thought I’d put together some thoughts and facts about safe lifting techniques and what the best approach should be to reduce injury risk for workers.
Is This Really The Safest Way To Lift?
Everyone knows to lift with your legs, not your back. If it was this simple, then why don’t people lift this way all of the time? You can go to any worksite right now and see workers lifting objects with straight legs and bending their backs. Let’s try to understand why.
There are two main reasons why this lifting technique is considered safer:
1. The Leg Muscles are Stronger Than the Back Muscles
We all know this is true, which is why we need them when lifting heavy objects. The problem is that bigger, stronger muscles require more effort to use. Especially when they are controlling hinge joints such as the knee, and ball/socket joints such as the hip. Therefore, if a worker uses their legs for every lift throughout the day, it will be hard work and most likely their leg muscles will fatigue. While this reduces the risk of overload injury to their back, it may increase the risk of injury to the knee and hip joints. Leg fatigue also increases the risk of slip, trip, and fall injuries.
So, maybe lifting with the legs is not the safest lifting technique after all…
2. The Structure of the Lower Back is Not Suited to Lifting in a Bent Position
Everyone is trying to avoid the dreaded bulging disc in their lower back, and for good reason. Lumbar discs can be the source of serious pain and have a huge impact on quality of life. The above image is of my mother, who sustained a workplace lumbar disc injury caused by lifting a patient when she was working as a nurse. The result was seven levels of her spine fused and ongoing pain and discomfort into her retirement.
However, research has shown that 20% of young adults and 75% of adults over 70 have disc bulges without any history of back injury or any back pain. So as we get older, our discs are very likely to bulge regardless.
One thing we do know is that lumbar discs are under the most pressure and are most likely to become injured when bending forward, leaning to the side, and twisting all at the same time. This sounds like it wouldn’t happen very often, but you’d be surprised. Every time you get in and out of your car you bend forward, lean to the side, and twist.
So there’s no debate that bending forward, leaning to the side, and twisting all at the same time is definitely the most unsafe way to lift.
The Best Lifting Technique Is Different for Individual Workers
We know every worker has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. These are influenced by:
Previous injuries resulting in compensatory movement patterns to protect the area
Genetics, because we’re all born with different muscle fiber types resulting in different strength levels
Anthropometry, which is a scientific way of saying body shape and size
Fitness level, as this has a direct impact on rates at which workers fatigue
Psycho-social factors such as motivation
Therefore, for every individual worker, different techniques should be used for different weights to accommodate for their unique strengths and weaknesses. These techniques will involve a different combination of legs and back sharing the load.
Example 1 - An older male worker with a previous knee injury would use a lifting technique that would include a moderate amount of bending forward and not involve squatting too deep to protect their knees.
Example 2 - A younger female worker with a previous lower back injury would use a lifting technique that would have a minimal amount of bending so she can protect her back, and would squat to use her legs to do most of the lifting.
The goal should be to provide workers with the knowledge and tools to enable them to know what technique is the best for them throughout their work day.
The best way to do this:
Use wearable technology that provides live feedback throughout their shift to alert them when they are moving in a way that increases their injury risk.
Provide training that is effective at increasing their awareness of their individual injury risks and what they need to do on a daily basis to keep these risks to a minimum.
To learn more about how technology can be used to reduce the musculoskeletal injury risk for workers, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or request a free demo below!