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Preventing Low-back Injury

By John Amtmann, with Dalton Gensch


I recently gave several presentations on preventing low-back injury for miners in Butte, Mont. Like the arborist industry, the mining industry is filled with tough men doing tough work. When I asked several of the miners about when they plan on retiring, I could see them working out the calculations and gaining some understanding of the importance of taking care of themselves.

Think about it, if the average age of death of American males is about 75, and most of us are retiring at about 65, then that leaves 10 good years left to enjoy the fruits of our labor. But that’s not the full story. Statistics show that the last eight years of our lives are spent with compromised health or reduced quality of life. It is kind of depressing to think that the fruits of our labor will only be enjoyable for two years before we begin a significant battle staying healthy enough to enjoy life. So, what can be done to improve the quality of life for a longer period after retirement?

Understand that the choices we make today will affect our health in the future. For overall health, it’s of supreme importance that arborists participate in three different activities that will have a positive affect:

1) Eat healthy, with generous proportions fruits, vegetables, healthy sources of protein and other nutritious foods.

2) Exercise — follow the guidelines that we’ve written about in this and previous articles to promote heart health, as well as to maintain muscular strength and endurance.

3) Maintain/improve flexibility by participating in exercises that stretch the muscles in a healthy manner.

Following the three recommendations above are important, and to improve your chances of staying out of the hospital/medical clinic due to back pain, arborists should pay close attention to proper lifting mechanics to prevent low-back injury. A 1993 OSHA study of back injuries found that the majority of movements at the time of injury involved bending and twisting under the load, the average time an object was held at time of injury was less than one minute, the distance traveled at the time of injury was less than five feet, and that with 83 percent of the cases the back was fully or partially flexed or bent. Proper lifting should include the following pre-lift considerations:

  • Examine the load for hazards.
  • Know your limit and halve it; estimate the weight and divide the load or get help if the weight is more than you can comfortably handle.
  • Plan your path and make sure that it is free of obstructions and other hazards.
  • Consider how you will set down the load — before you lift it.
  • Stand close to the load with your feet spread apart (at about shoulder width), with one foot in front of the other for balance.
  • Avoid twisting your torso.

When lifting, pay close attention to the position of your spine: Squat down with your head up and chest up, keeping your spine “locked in” and grasping the load firmly. Lift with your legs by slowly straightening them and then returning your back to a vertical position. Keeping the spine locked in will help to ensure that overall structural integrity of the spine is maintained and that there will be a lower chance of acute injury — and that back health will be maintained over the long term as well.

Note the lifting sequence below. The lift begins with the spine locked in, maintaining a slight arch with the head and chest up. This position will help to protect the spine from injury.

Lift 1 small

Lift 2 small

Lift 3 small

Lift 4 small

Lift 5 small

Above: Correct Lifting Mechanics


Compare the sequence for proper lifting above with pictures below of what NOT to do.


Lift 6 NOT small

Lift 7 NOT small

Lift 8 NOT small

Above: Incorrect Lifting Mechanics


What is the major difference in lifting mechanics? In the second sequence, the head and chest are not up, the spine is bent — not slightly arched — and is in a position that will increase the risk of an injury to the spine, connective tissue, or musculature of the back.

To maintain a healthy back throughout retirement, it is vital to maintain overall fitness and to pay close attention to lifting mechanics. No matter how light an object is, keep the head and chest up so the spine stays locked in. Also, avoid twisting at the spine while carrying any object. If you and your employees can follow these guidelines, you may lower your risk of back injury and keep a smile on your face.




John Amtmann is a professor of Applied Health Science program at Montana Tech in Butte, Mont. He works as an arborist during the summer, and can be reached via e-mail at jamtmann@mtech.edu.


Dalton Gensch is an undergraduate in the Applied Health and Safety Sciences program at Montana Tech where he also serves as the Kinesiology T.A.

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