Maintenance and Operations, Safety

Holiday Hazards: Back and Shoulder Injuries

You may not think of carrying holiday dishes, decorations and gifts as “manual materials handling,” but that’s what it amounts to. The amount of lifting, carrying, hanging, and hauling that your workers do during the holidays may well exceed what they do at other times of the year. All that lifting and carrying puts them at risk of back and shoulder injuries.

Father with daughter on his back while decorating a tree

Jacob Lund / Shutterstock.com

Regardless of whether they are suffering on or off the job, these injuries will affect your workforce, your expenses, and your productivity. So it’s worth your time to encourage workers to avoid holiday-related back and shoulder injuries.

Back Injury Risk Factors

Holiday activities put workers’ backs at risk when they:

  • Reach while lifting, to place the topper on the tree.
  • Lift awkward items, equipment, or people over and over, while they’re loading boxes of toys or food onto a truck for charity.
  • Twist while lifting, to put kids in Santa’s lap.
  • Bend while lifting, to set up elaborate holiday displays.
  • Lift heavy items, like boxes of holiday merchandise in the warehouse.
  • Work on walls and ceilings to hang holiday signage and decorations.
  • Work in awkward positions, as when they’re standing on a stepladder, hanging decorations on the far side of that 10-foot tree.

Back Injury Prevention

Make lifting easier for workers—and reduce their risk of back injuries—by:

  • Providing handles on containers whenever possible,
  • Keeping the weight of items that will be lifted below 50 lbs,
  • Providing mechanical assistive devices (dollies, carts, conveyors) to move loads over long distances, and
  • Minimizing the number of lifts that begin below waist height or above shoulder height.

Shoulder Injury Risk Factors

The types of activities that are most likely to cause shoulder injuries involve working at arm’s length, above elbow height, or with weight. Examples you might see during the holidays include:

  • Working on walls and ceilings. Many stores ordinarily have ceiling-mounted signage, but during the holidays, they may have much more, creating a greater above-the-shoulder workload.
  • Lifting heavy objects, especially further from the body. Christmas trees are heavy, awkward, and difficult to hold close to the body, creating both back and shoulder injury hazards
  • Working in an awkward position. Our arms are long and thin compared to the rest of our bodies, and we may insert them into areas we cannot get close to in order to do work. For example, a worker mounting exterior holiday lights may stretch or lean to get to difficult-to-reach areas.

Shoulder Injury Prevention

To prevent shoulder injuries:

  • Minimize lifting. Provide mechanical assists, such as carts, slings, dollies, and jacks, to raise objects and hold them in place. Put materials as close to the area where they will be used as is practical.
  • Lighten the load. When lifting cannot be eliminated, or when objects (such as tools) must be held at arm’s length, ensure that the items being lifted are as light as possible. For heavy objects such as furniture, having a team of workers lift them can reduce the weight carried by individuals.
  • Control motion. One of the most dangerous situations is a “save”—when a load shifts or a patient slips and workers attempt a save to prevent a fall. Minimizing the possibility of shifting or falling loads can help prevent these situations. A jack or brace that holds an object in place until it can be secured may prevent not just shoulder injuries but crushing and other injuries as well.
  • Improve the grip. Lifting requires more force and is more difficult (and more likely to cause injury) when there’s no easy way to grip an object.
  • Encourage rest and stretching. Workers can minimize damage from lifting, overhead, and arm’s-length work by taking frequent, very short breaks (15 to 30 seconds) and gently stretching hard-working muscles.

Is this series on holiday hazards stressing you out? Tune in tomorrow for strategies to deal with that holiday hazard!