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Addressing any back and neck pain you may be experiencing at work is necessary not just for your daily comfort but for your long-term wellbeing as well.

Kerryn Ramsey

Content Writer

One of the most common problems HIA members face working in the residential building industry is back and neck pain. No matter what your age, or whether you’re on the job or in the office, back or neck pain could happen to anyone. Managing and minimising this niggling – or sometimes excruciating – pain is essential, not just for comfort but for your long-term wellbeing.

Back pain can occur anywhere along the spine. Sufferers may experience low back pain as tension, soreness or stiffness. This pain is often referred to as non-specific back pain and may improve on its own within a few days. Unfortunately, due to various physical duties, many construction workers are at high risk of experiencing some sort of back injury or pain while working on the job which can develop into a long-term issue.

Safe Work Australia statistics show that muscular stress from lifting, carrying or putting down objects accounted for the highest proportion of serious claims by workers in the construction sector between 2013-20161 . Injuring your back on the job from a specific task, or by completing repetitive tasks unsafely, can potentially lead to loss of time at work, a hit to your income and can also affect the quality of your personal leisure time. So, what should you be looking out for to minimise your risks?

Construction workers are at risk of experiencing back injury or pain
It’s a good idea to see a doctor if your back or neck pain isn’t improving

Common causes

Your body’s main support structure is the spine, made up of vertebrae and the bones of the sacrum and coccyx. Between the vertebrae are discs that act as shock absorbers and allow your spine to bend. The spinal cord threads down through the central canal of each vertebra, connecting your brain to nerves in the rest of your body. Muscles in your neck and back protect your spine, maintain your posture and enable a complex range of movements.

Mechanical strain is the most common cause of back or neck pain. Leading causes are from lifting heavy objects and unequal lifting that involves bending, twisting or overextended reaching. Long hours and repetitive tasks can also put strain on your back and neck. Even simple things such as wearing a heavy tool belt or having an incorrect posture can lead to back and neck issues.

Certain trades put specific strain on the back and neck. Electricians, for example, tend to be sitting or hunched over in uncomfortable positions for most of their day. Not only are they forced to adopt difficult positions while applying fine motor skills, but many electricians also carry around heavy tool belts, which can be a recipe for back fatigue.

Plumbers face similar situations. Being in an uncomfortable position is a daily occurrence for a plumber. They’re often squished in tight and uncompromising places. Movements that include turning, twisting and bending the back can cause tension to build up along the spine.

It’s important to be aware of these issues and take proactive steps to prevent injury. While most back pain is caused by mechanical strain, sometimes back pain can be related to chronic or serious underlying medical conditions.

The best defence against back pain is understanding your body and moving well
Sometimes back pain can be related to chronic or serious underlying medical conditions

Diagnosing back pain

For most people who experience back pain, no specific cause is found. However, in some cases, back pain requires urgent medical care, especially as there could be the potential for severe injury. You should see a doctor as soon as possible if the pain was caused by a significant incident, like a fall or a blow. You should also get urgent medical attention if your back pain is accompanied by symptoms like:

  • fever
  • ‘pins and needles’, numbness or pain in your legs or buttocks
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • unexplained weight loss. 

 It’s also a good idea to see a doctor if your back or neck pain isn’t improving, or if you’re struggling to cope.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. In some cases, they may refer you for further tests, which could include blood tests or imaging tests such as MRI, CT or X-rays.

Back pain is generally categorised as acute or chronic, depending on how long your symptoms last, for example: 

  • Acute back pain – lasts less than six weeks
  • Sub-acute back pain – lasts six weeks to three months
  • Chronic back pain – lasts longer than three months.

How you manage your back pain changes based on the type of pain, how severe it is, and on your individual needs. Acute back pain can be a one-off event from musculoskeletal strain, and the good news is most people with this pain will recover quickly. Chronic pain is best managed by a team of healthcare professionals.

If you suffer from chronic pain, your doctor may create a pain management plan for you which is designed to give you the help, support and tools needed to achieve your pain management goals. These goals can include reducing the severity of your pain, improving your physical functioning, being able to work or lowering your reliance on medication. The ultimate goal is for you to live your life as normally as possible.

Mechanical strain is the most common cause of back or neck pain
Like most things, prevention is much more effective than cure

Preventing pain

Like most things, prevention is much more effective than cure. The best defence against back pain is understanding your body and moving well. Negative patterns should be recognised and avoided. It’s a learning modality – becoming aware of what you do, how you do it and how to improve it.

Here are five ways to help prevent back and neck pain:

  1. Stretch out: Starting the day with stretching exercises helps when doing physical work. Stretching loosens muscles, keeping them relaxed and active throughout the day.
  2. Use proper lifting techniques: The classic saying – lift with your legs, not your back – is not a myth. It prevents both short- and long-term injuries.
  3. Cut down the weight loads – or get help from another worker: There are no awards for lifting overly heavy objects on your own. The only things you may end up with are muscle strain, or worse, a long-term back injury. It’s a better idea to carry lighter loads or take fewer trips. Or just ask a mate for help.
  4. Take short breaks: Even when work is flat-out, it’s okay to take a break if you’ve exhausted yourself. Even a five-minute break can help give your muscles the rest they need.

Regular exercise, especially exercise that improves core strength and flexibility, can help protect your back. Eating a balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight may also help to lessen the strain on your back.

1Safe Work Australia, June 2018, Priority industry snapshot.

This article was compiled with contributions from Bupa Corporate.


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*Eligible customers can also get an ongoing 10% monthly discount that equates to 5 weeks free for every full year on their policy*. That’s 11 weeks* worth of free value in the first year! Contact us to find out more.

Terms and conditions:

*Eligible customers will receive from Bupa HI Pty Ltd ABN 81 000 057 590 (Bupa) 6 weeks free health insurance, 2 month and 6 month waiting periods waived on Extras and, for eligible customers who join on a Designated Plan (see ‘Additional Discount’ section below), an increase in their monthly corporate discount (Additional Discount) on the following terms and conditions. Eligibility for 6WF / waivers: To be eligible for the 6 weeks free health insurance plus 2 month and 6 month waiting periods waived on Extras, a customer must: (i) be a new Bupa health insurance member who has not in the last 12 months prior to the join date held a health cover with Bupa; (ii) take out an Eligible Corporate Health Insurance Policy during the Offer Period (see the ‘General’ section below), with such policy commencing by 5/08/2023. An ‘Eligible Corporate Health Insurance Policy’ is a combined Voluntary Hospital and Extras product issued by Bupa that is included in the customer’s corporate health plan (exclusions apply); (iii) set up and pay by direct debit; (iv) pay for and maintain their Eligible Corporate Health Insurance Policy for 30 consecutive days from the join date and be financial; and (v) if joining online, use promo code “6WFPLUS” and quote their company name upon joining. Additional Discount: To be eligible for the Additional Discount, a customer must: (i) meet all of the eligibility criteria as set out in the ‘Eligibility for 6WF / waivers’ section; and (ii) take out an Eligible Corporate Health Insurance Policy that is included on a corporate health plan designated by Bupa as being eligible for an Additional Discount (Designated Plan). The Additional Discount for each eligible customer will be determined by Bupa, and the Additional Discount may vary for each eligible customer depending on which Designated Plan applies. Before taking out an Eligible Corporate Health Policy, customers should check whether their Corporate Health Plan is a Designated Plan, and if so, confirm the Additional Discount that would apply to them by contacting Bupa via phone (1300 662 074) or visiting one of Bupa’s retail stores. All customers who are eligible for an Additional Discount will receive an ongoing monthly corporate discount of at least 8% after the Additional Discount has been applied. Maximum discount limits apply. Exclusions: Offer excludes Ambulance cover, Overseas Student Health Cover, Overseas Visitors Covers (both standalone and combined), Short Stay Visitors Cover, Corporate Proposition (CP) products, Voluntary Extras only products, Voluntary Hospital only products, products on any company funded Bupa health plans (either corporate split bill or corporate subsidised), and products that are part of any Bupa corporate health plans for which payroll deduction is available. General: Yearly limits, other waiting periods, fund and policy rules apply. This offer is not available with any other Bupa promotional join offer, with the exception of Bupa Refer a Colleague promotional offer, and is also not available if the customer joins via a price comparison website. The offer period is from 23/02/2023 to 05/07/2023 (Offer Period). Bupa reserves the right to amend the Offer Period. View full terms and conditions of this offer here: https://www.bupa.com.au/campaigns/health-insurance/six-weeks-free-terms-plus

First published on 24 Apr 2023

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