How to protect your back

Published on Tuesday, 26 February 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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You might not think of early childhood staff as being at high risk of injury, however looking after children is a much more physically demanding job than most people realise. According to Science Direct, early childhood education and care staff may contribute to 7 per cent of all reported workplace injuries with the back, neck and shoulders being the most common areas for injury.

The result of such physical strain can be costly for both staff and employers with ongoing chronic pain, an inability to work, surgery and other long-term health issues being some of the many outcomes. Therefore, whether you're at a long day care centre, preschool or home based care provider, prevention is the key when it comes to workplace back injuries.

What causes back injuries?

recent study from Science Direct evaluated the lifting and postural demands of 24 caregivers doing a number of different daily tasks over several hours, using observation and monitoring with a 3D posture device, among other tools. What they found was that lifting, bending and stooping are the most common risk factors for back injuries, with younger children being more physically demanding for carers than older kids.

They also observed that most of the lifting was performed when changing nappies and preparing for an activity. Workers did 0.6 and 0.8 lifts per minute with the total load lifted being 187kg and 183kg respectively over the course of half a day, and in relation to posture and duration, the most demanding tasks in this area were nap-time, cleaning, playing, doing activities and supervision.

Breaking down the tasks

These results aren't surprising when you stop and think about what an early childhood worker does throughout the day repeatedly. To further reiterate the key areas that can lead to back injuries, here is another summarised list courtesy of Culture of Safety:

  • Heavy lifting - Lifting children, such as in and out of cots, highchairs, change tables and play equipment, and food preparation.
  • Pushing or applying force - Pushing large strollers.
  • Frequent bending and twisting - When picking up children and other items like toys.
  • Awkward standing and posture - Sitting on the ground and in kids’ chairs, and balancing children on one hip.
  • Sudden load bearing - Reaching for a falling object or child.
  • Repetitive work - Such as arts and crafts and changing nappies.

Ways early childhood staff can avoid a back injury

How can we prevent injuries to the back, neck and shoulders when caring for children? Culture of Safety advises the following tips:

  • Avoid heavy, repetitive lifting - Encourage lifting children only when absolutely necessary and teach employees proper lifting techniques, such as getting as close to the object as possible, lifting gradually from the legs and abdominals and maintaining a balanced stance. Also consider purchasing change tables with built-in steps that children can climb themselves.
  • Minimise bending and twisting - Especially when carrying children or other heavy loads, and train staff to lift objects properly when weight is balanced evenly.
  • Promote exercise and wellness - Statistics show that those who are overweight, and smokers are more likely to suffer a back injury on the job than healthier colleagues. So, encourage your staff to maintain a healthy lifestyle with good diet and regular exercise to help strengthen their core; and perhaps even suggest warm up stretches prior to starting their shift.

Lifting strategies to minimise injury

Additionally, Point Performance also recommends that all education and care providers should adopt these handy lifting techniques when looking after kids:

  • Lunge strategy for getting down to floor or child eye level
    Take a large step backwards with one leg, bending the front knee so the back knee lowers to the floor. Handy for zipping a jacket or tying shoes, the lunge can also be used to pick a child up (popping them on your thigh before standing) and getting down to the floor (while keeping the legs strong and protecting the back).
  • Golfer's lift for picking up light objects with the aid of furniture
    Similar to how a golfer holds a club while raising one leg when getting the ball out of the hole, use a nearby chair or other piece of furniture for support while you pivot from the hip to get items like dropped forks and toys.
  • Forward lean/hip hinge for lifting something at waist height
    Lift one leg backwards as you brace your front leg against something stationery and then hinge forward from the front hip – such as leaning into the car when getting a child in or out of the car seat or leaning against a cot to tuck in the sheet.
  • Squat for reaching/lifting at knee level
    Squat with weight through the heels, your knees in line with your ankles, hips backward and trunk forward. Helpful for when lifting a child out of a stroller, picking up an item from under a table or cleaning a low table.
  • Abdominals for all lifting
    Don't forget to pull in your abdominal muscles before any bending or lifting to protect your back and prevent strain.

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