While it’s up to you to make sure that you take sensible precautions at home to protect your health, it’s a different matter when you’re at work where the demands of the job or the facilities provided for doing it can force you into a situation where damage to your back can result.

Sciatica and back pain are. of course, part of a much wider range of, at times, work-related ailments of all kinds that fall under the broad label of ‘musculoskeletal disorders’, a term that encompasses those conditions that affect the bones and muscles of the body and the tissues that hold them together.

Musculoskeletal problems often arise from tasks performed while employed, and each year more than half a million cases are reported as being caused by work. Says the Health and Safety Executive (HSE): “The potential to cause these conditions exists in most workplaces – although certain types of work are more often associated with musculoskeletal disorders than others, such as poultry processing, clothing manufacture, keyboard operation, nursing and assembly line work.”

According to the HSE, the causes fall into three main categories:

Manual handling and lifting – poorly designed tasks and incorrect lifting techniques and posture all increase the risk to workers. More than 55,000 injuries due to handling, lifting or carrying accidents are reported yearly.

Repetitive work – where work is done too quickly, such as in piecework, or where the work rate is controlled by a machine. This can be a particular problem when combined with the need for force; where the operator is positioned badly; or where the job is not varied enough.

Unsuitable posture – often caused by poor seating arrangements or by reaching and stretching awkwardly.

While a specific injury to the affected part can be detected in many instances of work-related disorders, in others, pain and discomfort may be the only evidence of problems, as in the case of chronic back pain or sciatica.

The HSE firmly believes that most of these problems can be avoided, often through relatively simple corrective action, such as perhaps modifying how a job is performed, or through re-siting parts of machinery or adapting seating positions.

The responsibility for preventing health problems caused by working conditions is one that is shared to a large extent by both the employee and the employer, and these can be summed up as follows:

The employer has a legal duty to safeguard the employee’s health and safety, and should identify tasks which could cause problems and take steps to improve the situation.

The employee must, however, exercise care and follow good work practices, particularly where lifting and carrying are involved. It is also up to the employee to ensure that any workstation is correctly adjusted when adequate adjustment is possible. Spelling this out more fully, current relevant legislation includes:

- Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSW Act) which places a duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.

Section 6 of this Act also places a duty on manufacturers, designers, suppliers and importers of articles for use at work to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the article is so designed and constructed as to be safe and without risks to health.

Under section 7 of the Act, employees have to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by what they do (or fail to do); they also have to cooperate with their employer, so far as is necessary, to enable

the employer to comply with legal duties.

It must be noted that the HSW Act deals with general duties and does not provide specific requirements on the prevention of particular ailments. However, various Regulations are more to the point as far as reducing the risk of back pain or injury are concerned, as shown below.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 (the Management Regulations) include requirements for employers to:

Assess risks to health or safety.

Arrange for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of preventive and protective measures.

Appoint competent people to assist the employer in complying with health and safety law.

Cooperate and coordinate health and safety actions where the activities of different employers interact.

Provide appropriate health surveillance, information and training.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1992 place duties on employers concerning the safe and proper use of work equipment. The risk assessment carried out under the Management Regulations, as mentioned above, is intended to help employers select work equipment and assess its suitability.

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 are directed mainly to protect employees who habitually use display screen equipment as a significant part of their normal work. Employers have duties to:

Assess and reduce risks.

Make sure new workstations meet minimum requirements covering equipment, furniture, the working environment, task design and software. There was a transition period until 31 December 1996 for existing workstations

Provide breaks or changes of activity, information and training.

While the health risks most commonly associated with operating computers and other VDUs are upper limb disorders (including repetitive strain injury) and sight problems, back troubles can easily arise from inadequate seating and a lack of breaks in the day’s work.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 require the avoidance or reduction of risk where the manual handling of loads involves a risk of injury.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 include requirements for lighting, workspace, workstation arrangements, seating and facilities for rest.

The Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 1992 apply to the supply of new machinery which will need to meet relevant essential health and safety requirements.

Taken together, the HSW Act and the various Regulations put a strong onus upon any employer to ensure that everything reasonable be done to prevent employees from contracting work-related ailments. Despite that, it remains a fact that many sufferers from back problems certainly attribute their difficulties to conditions at work. Should you think that your health problems are due to unsatisfactory work practices, this is what the HSE says you should do:

In the first instance, consult your doctor, giving as much information as is possible to enable him to decide whether or not your condition is likely to be due to your work. In some cases individuals suffering from specified conditions can get state compensation under the Industrial Injuries Prescribed Diseases Regulations. Ask your doctor about this or get leaflet N12 from your nearest Social Security office.

If you suffer from symptoms which may be attributable to work, particularly if they recur, then it is important to tell your doctor and employer. If you have a works nurse or doctor, then you should also tell them about your problem. You may also want your union representative to know that -you think your job is affecting you. If you are off sick for more than seven days your doctor will inform your employer of the cause via a sick note.

You can also contact a doctor or nurse from your local Employment Medical Advisory Service. You’ll find them at your local office of the Health and Safety Executive.

If you need more information, contact the HSE’s Information Centre on 0541 545500.

Additionally, should you develop a musculoskeletal disorder that makes it difficult for you to continue with your current job or you are out of work, you can get advice from your local Job Centre on assessment and rehabilitation schemes, registration as a disabled person, job retention, work aids for people with disabilities and help with job applications.


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