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Strain Injuries from Lifting Remain a Troubling Source of Loss for Retail

So What Can You Do?

Lifting is the activity that results in the largest percentage of retail injuries, according to a study of claims data by AmTrust Financial. Injuries related to lifting accounted for 22 percent of reported claims and 23 percent of the total payout for the top-ten injury types. Lifting injuries also had the highest total payout at $22 million, according to the company’s study, Retail Risk Report, 2019.

The problem from lifting injuries is further reflected in the company’s data on primary causes of injuries. “Strains,” analysis showed, accounted for 26 percent of claims and 32 percent of payouts. Cuts and scrapes and falls and slips are also problems, but strains are both more common and more costly.

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“Resulting in the most days out of work, retail workers often suffer muscle strains as a result of improper or excessive lifting, pushing, pulling, bending and other movements,” according to the report. “Workers should understand the basics of how to lift heavy objects and know their limits.” The study also noted that strains often result from repetitive tasks in a warehouse or stock room, “while placing inventory in the store or servicing customers.”

Finally, the problem of lifting injuries is apparent in the study’s analysis of body parts that workers reported injuring and which resulted in costly claim payouts. Retailers paid out more for injuries to workers’ “lower back area” than any other single body part, according the firm’s data collection.

One reason for the frequency of back injuries is that the identical movement that a worker may perform with no pain for years may suddenly be the source of a debilitating injury. Workers’ own “no harm” experiences often lead them into ignoring good lifting techniques until risky behavior becomes the norm. Especially at risk are workers who must manually handle many different types of loads, such as warehouse workers or shipping and receiving employees.

Jeff Corder
Jeff Corder

To reduce strain injuries, specifically those to workers’ backs and caused by lifting, retailers should try to impart good habits to workers as soon as they come on board, suggested Jeff Corder, vice president for loss control at AmTrust Financial. “In retail, new and inexperienced employees are at greater risk of injury,” he said. “A key step that four-wall retailers can take to control their workers’ comp cost is to pay close attention to how safety programs interface with new-hire programs. Incorporate a safe-work mindset into your overall program every step of the way.” Assigning a mentor to each new hire, so they can be shown the correct and safest way to do things, is a good idea, he said.

Advice from Experts

Retailers looking to curb costly back, strain, and lifting injuries might also consider the following advice from safety consultants and researchers:

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One-on-one training may be key to teaching proper lifting techniques. The most common reason workers give for using improper lifting techniques is that it takes longer, thereby hurting their ability to perform their job. But a research study involving 265 employees at grocery distribution centers found that a two-step lifting technique increased case handling times by less than one-third of a second over pivot-and-swing techniques (or only one minute per hour). Spending enough one-on-one time with workers on new lifting techniques is critical to overcoming their misperception that good techniques will slow them down.

Provide workers information on back injuries. Research shows that when workers understand how the back works and the mechanics of back injuries, they are more likely to work safely than when they only receive training that consists of do’s and don’ts.

If possible, workers should be allowed to start their job tasks slowly. Research is not entirely clear as to whether it is helpful for injury prevention for, say, a golfer to stretch before playing a round. But a golfer should lightly swing his clubs for several minutes before he tries to smoke one down the fairway. The same is true for anyone who performs a physical task. The simplest approach to warming up is to start your activity at a lower intensity, according to Mike Bracko, an occupational physiologist and fitness consultant. If companies can’t—for production design or other reasons—allow workers to begin their physical work tasks more slowly, then asking them to stretch before they begin physical work is probably a good idea.

Workers should receive encouragement—and time—to stretch when they feel stiff. There is debate on whether or not lining up an entire work group for a 10-minute stretching routine will prevent injuries, but little evidence to suggest it is not valuable to interject mild stretching during the course of continuous work. For example, workers who sit at a single workstation for hours on end should perform periodic stretching, including shoulders, neck, and lower back,” according to Bracko.

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Specific exercise programs aimed at specific risks can help. Research casts doubt on the efficacy of an “all together now, let’s stretch,” model, but research is kinder to specific interventions. For example, the body of research shows that specific a specific stretching and exercise program can help reduce symptoms of workers who experience low back pain. And workers at-risk of shoulder pain report fewer strain injuries when companies train them how to perform stretching and strengthening exercises, including a research study in which construction workers were given instruction on how to perform five specific exercises. Workers given those tips reported significantly less shoulder pain than control groups after eight weeks, according to the study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

Supervisors and managers should be mindful of the risk of workers hurting their backs from lifting. The subtlety of this hazard—unlike wearing goggles or a hardhat—makes it a dangerous habit that even the most safety conscious of employees can fall into. Because of it, workers’ backs need to be a focus of frequent and sustained behavior modification.

Look for Yourself

In addition to reviewing store and facility records on back injures—when and where they occur—safety consultants frequently remind leaders that it’s important to get out on the floor, observe work, and assess it with specific questions in mind, such as:

  • Do workers plan when moving objects to minimize the amount of lifting they will have to do later?
  • Do they pull or push hand trucks? Pushing allows the legs to help and reduces the strain on the back.
  • Are they using carts, hand trucks, dollies, or other devices whenever possible? Do they have easy access to all such devices that might help them?
  • Do they jerk loads or lift them too quickly?
  • Do they appear to do the necessary “warm up” to increase circulation?
  • Do they keep the load close to them when lifting? The farther the load is from a person’s body, the more force it exacts on it.
  • Do they appear to be keeping their torso as upright as possible to keep their back in a natural position?
  • Are they twisting or bending while lifting a load? This can easily force the spine out of alignment.
  • Do they go up and down stairs while handling a heavy load? This exaggerates the stress on the back.
  • Do they set the load down by squatting and letting their legs do the work? They should be.
  • Are they wearing back belts? Evidence is unclear that these prevent occupational injuries, so it’s worth asking: Do workers who wear them appear more conscious of the risk to their back, and therefore follow safe lifting techniques? Or: Do workers who wear them use them as a substitute for following best lifting practices?

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