Risk of back injury at work

It is well known that actor Christopher Reeve was injured during an equestrian competition in 1995. He was famous for acting in various films, particularly his role in the ‘Superman’ films. He was thrown from his horse during the competition and became paralysed from the neck down. As a result of the accident, he used a wheelchair and needed breathing apparatus for the rest of his life. In 2002, Reeve and his wife set up a Paralysis Resource Centre which funds research into spinal injuries. Sadly Reeve died following a cardiac arrest in 2004.

Research by the Reeve Foundation found that spinal injuries account for 23% of paralysis cases and that 28% of spinal injuries were caused by accidents at work. The second most common cause was motor vehicle accidents, which account for 24% of spinal injuries. This indicates that many cases of spinal injury and paralysis were caused by injuries at work.

A spinal injury is just one type of back injury. A slipped disc is when one of the intervertebral discs (the cushioning discs between the small bones which make up the spine) becomes damaged, often through pressure or strain. Slipped discs are responsible for 1 in 20 cases of back pain. Another common type of back injury is sciatica which is irritation to the sciatic nerve, which runs from the pelvis, down the legs to the feet. This is often caused by a slipped disc. The main symptom of sciatica is pain in the buttocks and down one or both legs.

A 52 year old furniture removal worker went to his GP complaining of pain in his right buttock and down his right leg. The GP diagnosed sciatica. The patient had trouble walking and the pain was at its worst when he was lying down so he had difficulty sleeping. The GP recommended pain relief, gentle exercise and physiotherapy. After about four weeks, the patient had recovered and was able to return to work. The footballer Thierry Henry also suffered from an episode of sciatica in 2006 but underwent five weeks of physiotherapy and was able to return to playing football after this.

A back injury can be extremely painful and even less serious conditions can take weeks to recover from. Therefore it is important that both workers and employers take steps to prevent back injuries in the workplace. Employers’ obligations regarding manual handling can be found in ‘The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992.’ These Regulations require employers to apply control measures to prevent, or reduce, the risk of injury to workers from manual handling of loads. The HSE has issued guidance on the loads which can be handled safely. These vary depending on the sex of the lifter and how high the object is to be lifted. If a weight is to be lifted, a risk assessment should be conducted to prevent injury. Failure of a company to follow these obligations could result in the employer being liable for an injury.

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