Dollars and Sense: The Economic Burden of Worker Back Pain

April 25, 2019

Man standing at his desk
Kip Soteres

North American Spine cites statistics showing the 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain in their lifetimes. That pain will become chronic for 20 percent of Americans.

Just treating back pain costs an estimated $87.6 billion annually, while the indirect costs of back pain associated with lost time at work, productivity and insurance is estimated to be $100 billion.

Work-related back pain contributes significantly to this growing problem. Corporate Wellness Magazine states that employers will pay more than $50,000 per 100 workers for lower back pain, factoring for both productivity losses and medical expenses. The risk associated with these losses can be greatly reduced by enhanced focus on the OSHA ergonomics standard and other commonsense guidelines.

Tips to Reduce Lower Back Pain Risks

The OSHA ergonomics standard begins with a high level of management commitment. Leaders must believe that a proactive approach will reduce the number of incidents, creating a happier, healthier, more productive worker population.

Start a conversation with employees about hazards into the work environment. Start from existing data about how work-related back pain happens, and invite employees to weigh in with their lived experience and suggestions for improvement. Be prepared for superficial initial inputs. Depending on current levels of engagement and trust, employees may test managers in the early stages, until they see where small suggestions lead. Visible acceptance of feedback and implementation of good ideas will cultivate those audiences and potentially open the dialogue to more complex or challenging topics.

Don't just enlist employees for help in identifying solutions. Use them to communicate findings and share solutions with their peers. Create champions by recognizing highly engaged employees for promoting awareness and best practices for back safety. Especially recognize individuals who bring early risks and symptoms to your attention. Early reporting of symptoms can greatly reduce the compounded problems that can arise when those early symptoms are ignored.

Best Ergonomic Principles and Practices

Train for best practices to protect against the most common causes of back pain. The National Pain Report breaks down those best practices to two simple mandates: stand smart and sit smart. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that just sensible, regular switching between sitting and standing can reduce neck and back pain by more than 50 percent. Simple wall posters and screen savers can remind employees about the importance of varying sitting and standing throughout the day.

Basic ergonomic principles and a good desk chair will go a long way to helping workers who spend most of their days at a desk. Guidelines like these on Health.com can help ensure that you are working in a sustainable and healthy way. SpineUniverse and similar sites provide tips for workers who stand more than sit.

Encourage regular exercise. While there's much that can be done in the workplace to reduce work-related back pain, it's no substitute for encouraging employees to exercise outside of the office and maintain a healthy body mass. Incent those behaviors with wellness programs and partnerships with local gyms and other vendors.

Pursue continuous improvement relentlessly. Review every incident to identify opportunities. The more you learn from mistakes, the better you will be the next time around.

Engaging employees in addressing work place back pain makes them allies and partners. Together you can forge solutions that will make them healthier and happier while employers will see fewer back-related OSHA claims and associated costs.

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