Back Pain In The Workplace

Back pain at work: Fact Sheet

Whether it's dull and achy or sharp and stabbing, back pain can make it hard to concentrate on your job. Unfortunately, many occupations — such as nursing, construction and factory work — can place significant demands on your back. Even routine office work can cause or worsen back pain. Understand what causes back pain at work and what you can do to prevent it.

An estimated 186 million work days are lost each year to back pain alone; a tremendous

burden for wor kplace productivity and cost. 2 In addition to back pain, overexertion, falls and repetitive - use injuries are among the most common forms of worksite injury.

According to the 2012 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the cost of the most disabling workplace injuries and illnesses in 2010 amounted to $51.1 billion in direct U.S. workers’

compensation costs, averaging more than one billion dollars per week.3

Pain in the workplace takes a toll on employees as well as employers. One study of workers with low-back pain found that workplace pain challenges were associated with activity interference, negative self-perceptions, interpersonal challenges and inflexibility of work.4

Nearly 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported among private industry employers in 2011. The rate reported for 2011 was unchanged for the first time in a decade. The total recordable cases injury and illness incidence rate among private industry employers has declined significantly each year since 2002. 5

In 2010, the top 5 categories produced 73.1% of the entire cost burden of disabling workplace injuries. The top 10 causes of the most disabling work-related injuries and direct workers’ compensation costs were: 3

-Overexertion $13.61 billion (26.8%), including injuries caused from excessive

lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying or throwing of an object

-Falls on same level $8.61 billion (16.9%)

-Bodily reaction $5.78 billion (11.4%)

-Falls to lower level $5.12 billion (10.0%)

-Struck by object $4.10 billion (8.0%)

-Struck against object $2.11 billion (4.1%)

-Repetitive motion $2.02 billion (4.0%)

-Highway incident $1.99 billion (3.9%)

-Caught in/compressed by $1.79 billion (3.5%)

-Assaults/violent acts $0.64 billion (1.3%)


Common causes of back pain at work?

A number of factors can contribute to back pain at work. For example:

  • Force. Exerting too much force on your back — such as by lifting or moving heavy objects — can cause injury.

  • Repetition. Repeating certain movements can lead to muscle fatigue or injury.

  • Posture. Slouching exaggerates your back's natural curves, which can lead to muscle fatigue and injury.

Of course, certain medical conditions and lifestyle factors — such as obesity, sleeping position, poor physical condition, smoking and stress — also can contribute to back pain.

One study of employees with low-back pain as a result of a workplace injury uncovered five main themes: justifying back pain at work; concern about future ability to retain work; coping with flare-ups; reluctance to use medication; and concern about sickness records.6

  • The researchers concluded that workers with low-back pain remained uncertain of how best to manage their condition in the workplace despite previous health care interventions and they were also concerned about the impact back pain might have on their job security and future work capacity.6

  • They were also concerned about how back pain was viewed by their employers and co-workers and felt the need to justify their condition with a medical diagnosis and evidence.6

  • More than one - half of the 3 million private industry injury and illness cases reported nationally in 2011 were of a more serious nature that involved days away from work, job transfer, or restriction. These cases occurred at a rate of 1.8 cases per 100 full-time workers, unchanged from 2010.5

In 2011, sprains, strains, and tears accounted for 38% of total injury and illness cases requiring days away from work in all ownerships. Soreness and pain accounted for 12% of the total cases. While accounting for smaller proportions of total cases, fractures, amputations, multiple injuries with fractures, and carpal tunnel syndrome each required a median of 25 days or more away from work to recuperate–more than 3 times the number of days for all types of injuries and illnesses.7

  • Of the 447,200 sprains, strains, and tears in 2011, 22% were the result of overexertion in lifting or lowering. Falls on the same level accounted for 12% of sprains, strains, and tears. In 36% of the sprain, strain, and tear cases, the back was injured. Injuries to the shoulders and knees each accounted for 12%. 7

  • Industries with the highest incidence rates (number of incidents per 100 full-timeemployees) of nonfatal occupational injury and illness cases with days away from work,restricted work activity or job transfer for 2011are: 8

-Fire protection (local government) –13.5

-Nursing and residential care facilities (state government) –13.1

-Steel foundries (private industry) -12.7

-Police protection (local government) –11.3

  • Industries with the highest total number of nonfatal injury (private sector) are as follows: 9

-Health care and social assistance–592,600 -Manufacturing–455,00 -Retail trade–413,200 -Accommodation and food services–269,200 -Transportation and warehousing-185,000

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), often referred to as ergonomic injuries, accounted for 33% of all workplace injuries and illnesses requiring time away from work in 2011. 7

  • For all occupations, the back was injured in 42% of the MSD cases and required a median of 7 days to recuperate. The most severe MSD cases occurred to the shoulder, requiring a median of 21 days for the worker to return to work, but accounted for only 13% of the MSD cases. 7

  • In 36% of the sprain, strain, and tear cases, the back was injured, while 12% involved the shoulder.7


1. Mayo Clinic. “Back pain at work: Preventing pain and injury.” Accessed April 18, 2013

2. AAOS Now. “Aching Backs Impact Cost, Disability.” January 2009. Accessed April 18, 2013.

3. Liberty Mutual Annual Report of Scientific Activity. 2012. Accessed July 10, 2013


4. Tveito TH, Shaw WS, Huang YH, Nicholas M, Wagner G. “Managing pain in the workplace: a focus group study of challenges, strategies and what matters most to workers with low back pain.” Disabil Rehabil


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