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Niosh Issues Guidance On Reducing Back Pain

An information circular recently released by NIOSH offers help on what to do about low back pain (LBP) and disability in mining. Considering the magnitude


An information circular recently released by NIOSH offers help on what to do about low back pain (LBP) and disability in mining. Considering the magnitude of the problem, this is not advice to be ignored.

Just how bad is the back injury problem in mining? From MSHA data, NIOSH identified 25,607 back injuries in the industry over a 10-year period ending in 2005. With each injury occurrence costing on average of $18,000, excluding indirect costs, NIOSH put the price tag for these injuries at $460.9 million. That amount should be enough to convince people that something needs to be done.

In fact, it appears that some operators are taking action. It is encouraging to note that the incidence of LBP over the past decade has declined significantly. In 2005, the rate throughout all of mining, including contractors, was 0.6 per 100 full-time equivalent workers. That represents a huge drop from just under 1.2 in 1996. So there have been some successful interventions.

Yet, Sean Gallagher, who wrote the NIOSH circular, notes, ìBack injuries remain the most significant source of disability, cost and suffering of all musculoskeletal disorders in mining, and it is clear that there is much work to do in this area.î His conclusion seems especially apt for stone mines. Among surface workers, the highest back injury rate was seen among this group---exceeding that of any other mining commodity including sand and gravel, coal, and contractors.


The top four work-related physical risk factors for LBP are manual material handling, frequent bending or twisting, heavy physical load and whole-body vibration. Physical factors, such as age and fitness level, also play a role. Other contributing factors include lack of control over one's job, poor relations with supervisors, job stress and monotony.

Prevention takes two forms. Primary preventative efforts seek to forestall the problem altogether. Gallagher recommends a proactive approach that begins with a risk assessment of all jobs. Specifically, identify the problem jobs, assess the risk, develop and implement control measures and evaluate the effort.

As many safety professions know, the best solution often is to engineer out the hazard. In mining, a host of mechanical-assist devices serve that purpose. NIOSH has developed a mobile manipulator, which one person can use to safely lift and maneuver loads up to 600 pounds.

Hoists are a common sight in maintenance shops. Air bags, lightweight and portable when deflated, can lift conveyor belts or re-rail derailed track vehicles. Counterweights and lift stands also are available. Even the bending associated with chocking wheels can be eliminated by connecting a waist-high handle to a pair of chocks.


Besides mechanical devices, other primary prevention techniques involve better design of material handling and other types of systems as well as improved design of manual-lifting tasks. Secondary prevention is what you do after an injury to minimize disability. Many of the same interventions as in primary prevention apply. In addition, according to Gallagher, a proactive return-to-work program is essential to reducing lost time.

Having alternative work available for the disabled employee is critical to returning him or her to the workforce quickly, but there must be more. Management must be committed to the return-to-work program. Positive communication also is essential; it is important to stay in touch with the worker to express concern for his or her health and express management's view that the work is valued.

Reducing Low Back Pain and Disability in Mining goes into more detail. Download the 76-page publication from NIOSH's mining Web site (


James Sharpe holds a masters degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene. He has nearly 30 years experience in occupational and environmental health and safety. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.