Back pain is the most common work-related musculoskeletal disorder related to absenteeism in every occupation.1 Low back pain (LBP) is the most common type of back pain, affecting 1 in 4 American workers.2 It costs the nation $100 billion annually.3
Recent research suggests that current health and safety measures are insufficient when dealing with workplace back pain. As a result, back pain accounts for 20% of worker’s compensation claims, and the average employer pays out between $40,000 and $80,000 for these claims.4 According to the most recent National Health Interview Survey, healthcare practitioners and support staff report some of the highest levels of LBP.5
Below we’ll discuss three approaches Employee Health (EH) and Occupational Medicine (OccMed) staff can use to help employees cope with back pain.
1. Acknowledge the Role of Work on Back Pain
Nurses recorded more back-related back pain than any other job category, beating out even stock clerks and laborers in the freight industry.6 Nearly 90% of nurses report lower back pain (LBP) at some point and are likely to leave their jobs due to physical challenges that exacerbate pain (such as lifting supplies and moving patients).7
Chronic back pain is the leading cause of disability among all workers, not just healthcare workers (HCWs), and research shows that it can:
- Decrease motivation.8
- Lead to cognitive impairment and negatively affect decision-making abilities.9
- Undermine productivity.10
- Cause or worsen depression.11
It’s crucial for EH and OccMed professionals to take back pain seriously, encourage employees to report back pain, and open up a dialogue with workers and managers about how back pain affects job performance and worker retention. This gives EH and OccMed departments a chance to intervene, examine, and modify duties that frequently cause pain.
2. Create Detailed Reports About Musculoskeletal Injuries In Your Workforce
Chronic back pain often goes underreported since acute workplace injuries (such as lacerations and sprains) are easier to track and more straightforward to report to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).12 But EH or OccMed software makes gathering data on back pain easier.
Specialized software can record:
- Detailed injury data that includes body parts affected.
- The tasks performed by injured workers when they report pain.
- The number of referrals for medical care due to back pain.
Back pain data can help reveal the following:
- The workers or departments that suffer the most back injuries and require the most intervention.
- The tasks that can be modified to reduce back injuries.
- The amount of money that can be saved by addressing back pain.
The first step towards addressing back pain in the workplace is making it more visible. A recent survey found that employees with persistent pain fear disclosing their condition for fear of discrimination and a lack of employer support.13
3. Develop Resources On Back Pain For EH and OM Staff
Proper safety protocols require closing these gaps and developing safety education that teaches employees when and where they are likely to sustain injuries and how to minimize risks. This helps put some of the power and responsibility back in their hands.14
Because issues like body weight, mental health, and even economic factors may play a role in back pain, it can be challenging to fully address all contributing factors in the workplace.15 However, there are ways that EH and OccMed professionals can work with employees and managers to set workers up for a pain-free future, including:
- Making educational resources available (particularly for preventative measures) so employees understand the potential causes, effects, and importance of treating back pain.
- Researching the interventions with the best outcomes for specific types of employees.
- Offering employer-backed education and physical activity programs.
- Staying open to modifying job tasks.
- Investing in technology for lifting and ergonomics to address common causes of back pain.
Monitoring Back Pain in the Workplace
Programs that include physical modifications and organizational change to manage back pain are more effective than programs that focus on physical modifications alone.16 A recent attempt to devise a toolkit for workers who experience back pain also found that previously unknown factors like shared office space (and not having ergonomically-adjusted personal equipment) affect back pain.17
EH and OccMed professionals can only see the complete picture of back pain in the workplace if they collect data, encourage employee transparency to identify trouble spots, and work together with employees to manage all back pain.
3 Best Practices for OccHealth Nurses
1 American Chiropractic Association, “Back Pain Facts and Statistics,” November 5, 2022.
2 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet,” July 25, 2022.
3 Occupational Health & Safety, “The Back-Breaking Cost of Back Pain,” September 12, 2018.
4 Occupational Health & Safety, “The Priceless Value of Implementing Safety Tech,” October 3, 2022.
5 Annals of Internal Medicine, “Prevalence, Recognition of Work-Relatedness, and Effect on Work of Low Back Pain Among U.S. Workers,” August 20, 2019.
6 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Back injuries prominent in work-related musculoskeletal disorder cases in 2016,” August 28, 2018.
7 National Library of Medicine, “Back Safety,” October 3, 2022.
8 Scientific Reports, “Brain-behaviour correlates of habitual motivation in chronic back pain,” July 6, 2020.
9 Progress in Neurobiology, “The effect of pain on cognitive function: A review of clinical and preclinical research,” March 2011.
10 Human Resources for Health, “Four-year review of presenteeism data among employees of a large United States health care system: a retrospective prevalence study,” 2018.
11 Mayo Clinic, “Pain and depression: Is there a link?” April 3, 2019.
12 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “The quest for meaningful and accurate occupational health and safety statistics,” December 2015.
13 Healthcare (Basel), “The Pain at Work Toolkit for Employees with Chronic or Persistent Pain: A Collaborative-Participatory Study,” January 10, 2022.
14 EHS Today, “3 Ways to Minimize OSHA Recordables,” November 4, 2022.
15 The Spine Journal, “The role of the social determinants of health in outcomes of surgery for low back pain: a systematic review and narrative synthesis,” May 2022.
16 Safety & Health, “Solutions to tackle work-related MSDs: New white paper from NSC,” September 14, 2022.
17 Healthcare (Basel), “The Pain at Work Toolkit for Employees with Chronic or Persistent Pain: A Collaborative-Participatory Study,” January 10, 2022.