4 steps to prevent back strain

A big shipment came in and your boss asks you to help unload the truck. Or maybe the garage sale is over and you’re packing up boxes to take to your local charity. You’re feeling good until you pick up a box and a sudden, sharp pain shoots through your lower back.

Poor lifting techniques can cause short-term pain or long-term injury. When lifting at home or on the job, protect yourself by following some good advice:

1. Strengthen your core
Those six-pack abs are more than cosmetic. If you are prone to back injuries, chances are your core is what needs attention. The muscles in your abdomen and pelvis play a crucial role in supporting your spine. Strengthening your core and tightening it when preparing to lift will help prevent injury.

2. Bend at the knees
We’ve all heard it before, so why don’t we heed the advice?! When picking something up, bend your knees and hips to squat down to the object, keeping your feet shoulder-width apart. As you stand, hug the item close to your body, using the muscles in your legs, hips, and buttocks to do the work. Or, kneel down proposal-style and lift the box onto your bended knee. Then, use your leg muscles to stand.

3. Keep the natural curve in your back
The traditional advice is to lift with your back straight, but experts today are more likely to tell you to “keep the natural curve in your back.” The goal is to maintain a proper spine position without hunching your shoulders, curving your back outward, or twisting when lifting.

4. Breathe
Avoid holding your breath, as that can lead to a dangerous increase in blood pressure. Instead, take a deep breath and exhale while you lift.

In addition to practicing proper lifting techniques, the most important advice is to know your limits. Seek help when necessary. Your back will thank you later.

Make fall prevention on job sites a daily priority

One wrong step and a construction worker can tumble down a steeply pitched roof, slide or drop off an unstable ladder, or be left hanging from a scaffold. The difference between an unexpected stumble and tragedy is simple: fall protection.

Falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry. Hundreds of workers die each year and thousands more suffer catastrophic and debilitating injuries. Yet, lack of proper fall protection remains the most frequently cited violation by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). To recognize this often fatal hazard, tens of thousands of employers and more than a million workers across the country joined OSHA in 2014 for a weeklong Fall Safety Stand-Down, the largest occupational safety event ever held. It is now an annual observance.

Building on last year's widespread participation, OSHA made this year's Stand-Down a two-week event May 4-15, 2015. Employers and workers paused during their workday for topic talks, demonstrations, and training on how to use safety harnesses, guard rails, and other safeguards to protect workers from falls. Underscoring the importance of this effort, industry and business leaders, including universities, labor organizations, and community and faith-based groups, scheduled stand-downs in all 50 states and around the world.

While the national observance happens only once a year, preventing falls must be a priority every day. The National Safety Stand-Down website provides details on how to conduct a Stand-Down and gives access to free education and training resources, fact sheets, and other outreach materials in English and Spanish. These resources are available on their website.

"With the economy on the rebound and housing starts on the rise, now is the time to for all of us to renew our commitment to sending workers home safe every night," said Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. "Last year's Stand-Down showed us what employers and workers sharing that commitment can accomplish. Responsible employers understand that safety is not a luxury — it is a necessity."

The National Fall Safety Stand-Down is part of OSHA's fall prevention campaign, launched three years ago with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH's National Occupational Research Agenda, and The Center for Construction Research and Training. Additional partners for this year's event include: American Society for Safety Engineers, National Safety Council, National Construction Safety Executives, the United States Air Force, OSHA-approved state plans, state consultation programs, and OSHA Training Institute Education Centers.

"No child should lose a parent, no wife should lose a husband, and no worker should lose their life in a preventable fall," said NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard. "The Stand-Down serves as an important opportunity for worksites to recognize the hazards that cause them, and to train employers and workers how to avoid them so that these senseless tragedies can be prevented once and for all."

SECURA policyholders are encouraged to share their Safety Stand-Down activities with their SECURA Risk Management Consultant or insurance agent. 

Keep your yard safe no matter who shows up to play

When you build a tree fort, add a pool, or put in a swing set, your yard becomes a playground for your kids. But that also could make it attractive to neighbor kids and, even if they’re not invited, you could be liable for their injuries on your property.

Take these steps to protect your property and keep your kids and their friends — invited or not — safe.

Tree fort
  • Bolt the ladder down for safe entry.
  • Build adequate railings if there’s an open deck, porch, or bridge on the tree house.

  • Surround the pool with a fence or barrier on all sides, and install a self-closing, self-latching gate with a latch at least 54 inches from the ground.
  • Keep toys away from the pool when not in use. Toys could lure children toward the water, where they can easily fall in. See more pool safety tips.

  • Use a protective surface such as mulch, sand, or wood chips to cover the ground and reduce the risk of injury if children fall.
  • Set up your play set far enough from other obstacles, trees, or furniture in your yard — especially if it has a swing.

For any of these play areas at your home, regular maintenance is key. Check for loose or worn hardware, places that could pinch fingers, rusty metal, chipped paint, and splinters or decaying wood. You also should supervise your kids when they’re playing.

While these additions to your property typically are covered by your homeowners policy, they may require extra coverage. Talk to your independent insurance agent to make sure you’re protected.

What to expect when OSHA visits your business

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is tasked with enforcing safety and health requirements in the workplace. OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers are highly trained industrial hygienists and safety professionals. Their goal is to assure compliance with OSHA requirements and help employers and employees reduce on-the-job hazards. This helps achieve the ultimate goal of preventing injuries, illnesses, and deaths in the workplace.

Most OSHA inspections are conducted without advance notice, making it a good idea for your company to pre-plan a strategy in the event of an inspection. Employers have the right to require compliance officers to obtain an inspection warrant before entering the worksite. Rest assured, they will return.

OSHA priorities
Before we discuss what to do when they show up, let’s first examine how they got to your door in the first place. OSHA cannot inspect all seven million workplaces it covers each year. Instead, the agency tends to focus inspections on the most hazardous workplaces in the following order of priority:
  1. Imminent danger situation – Hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm receive top priority. Compliance officers will ask employers to correct these hazards immediately or remove endangered employees.
  2. Fatalities and catastrophes – These are incidents that involve a death or the hospitalization of three or more employees. Employers are required to report such catastrophes to OSHA within eight hours.
  3. Complaints – Allegations of hazards or violations also receive a high priority. Employees may request anonymity when they file complaints.
  4. Referrals – Hazard information provided from other federal, state, or local agencies; individuals; organizations; or the media receive consideration for inspection.
  5. Follow-ups – Checks for abatement of violations cited during previous inspections also are conducted by the agency in some circumstances.
  6. Planned or programmed investigations – Inspections aimed at specific high-hazard industries or individual workplaces that have experienced high rates of injuries and illnesses receive priority.

All complaints are prioritized based on perceived severity. With permission from the complainant, OSHA may choose to contact the employer via telephone for low priority hazards. The compliance officer will describe the safety and health concerns and follow up with a fax providing details about alleged safety and health hazards. The employer must respond in writing within five working days, identifying any problems found and noting corrective actions taken or planned.

If the response is adequate and the complainant is satisfied with the response, OSHA generally will not conduct an on-site inspection. It is important to provide a thorough response in a timely manner. Providing evidence of compliance, such as photographs, training documentation, etc., also will help to close the case without an on-site inspection.

Before conducting an inspection, OSHA compliance officers research the inspection history of a worksite using various data sources, and review the operations and processes in use and the standards most likely to apply. They gather appropriate personal protective equipment and testing instruments to measure potential hazards.

Presentation of credentials
The on-site inspection will not begin until the compliance officer has provided the employer with his credentials, which include a photograph and serial number. Do not begin the opening conference or inspection process until the appropriate management personnel are present.

Train receptionists and facility guards on the process in the event a compliance officer arrives.

Opening conference
The compliance officer will explain why OSHA selected the workplace for inspection and describe the scope of the inspection, walk-around procedures, and employee representation and interviews. The employer then selects a representative(s) to accompany the compliance officer during the inspection.

An authorized representative of the employees, if any, also has the right to go along. In any case, the compliance officer will consult privately with a reasonable number of employees during the inspection.

At the opening conference, it is a good idea to obtain a copy of the complaint. The complaint will not contain the name of the complainant. Do not comment about the reason for the complaint or the person you believe made the complaint. Employees who have registered safety complaints are protected from discrimination or retaliation by their employer under the OSH Act.

If OSHA plans to hold an industrial hygiene inspection, determine what tests or monitoring OSHA will conduct, and ask about the intended test procedures. Find out the number of individuals tested, equipment being used, chemicals being sampled, and duration of the test.

If able, you should do simultaneous testing to verify the accuracy of the results. The compliance officer may agree to defer testing to a later date if you ask to conduct simultaneous testing.

After the opening conference, the compliance officer and representatives will walk through the portions of the workplace covered by the inspection, checking for hazards that could lead to employee injury or illness. The compliance officer also will review worksite injury and illness records, and posting of the official OSHA poster.

During the walk-around, compliance officers may point out some apparent violations that you can correct immediately. While the law requires that these hazards must be cited, prompt correction is a sign of good faith on the part of the employer. Compliance officers try to minimize work interruptions during the inspection and will keep confidential any trade secrets they observe.

Employee representatives should define areas that the inspector will need to see and restrict the visit to those areas or departments. Determine the route to the designated areas before escorting the compliance officer to the destination. Compliance officers can cite any violation they find in “plain view,” no matter the purpose of the inspection.

Do not offer a facility tour to the compliance officer. 

Assign at least one of the employee representatives to take notes, photographs, and/or video during the inspection. Notes should include all observations made by the inspector, departments visited, equipment inspected, and individuals interviewed.

Take a photo of any item photographed by the compliance officer. If the photo is of an isolated violation, take photos of similar areas that do not share the same violation. If the compliance officer requests a copy of records or documents, make additional copies to keep with your inspection file. 

Closing conference
After the walk-around, the compliance officer holds a closing conference with the employer and the employee representatives to discuss the findings. The compliance officer discusses possible courses of action an employer may take following an inspection that could include an informal conference with OSHA or contesting citations and proposed penalties. The compliance officer also discusses consultation and employee rights.

The closing conference may be delayed based on the size of the inspection or testing results. This also is the time to promote company safety programs and the company’s commitment to employee safety and health. Showing good faith and a dedication to safety can help reduce potential penalty amounts. Be careful about setting abatement dates, and allow ample time to correct the violations. Point out factual mistakes and discuss disputes, but do not argue with the compliance officer.

OSHA must issue a citation and proposed penalty within six months of the violation’s occurrence. Citations describe OSHA requirements allegedly violated, list any proposed penalties, and provide a deadline for correcting the alleged hazards.

Violations are categorized as other-than-serious, serious, willful, repeated, and failure to abate. Penalties may range up to $7,000 for each serious violation and up to $70,000 for each willful or repeated violation. Penalties may be reduced based on an employer’s good faith, inspection history, and size of business. For serious violations, OSHA also may reduce the proposed penalty based on the gravity of the alleged violation. No good faith adjustment will be made for alleged willful violations.

When OSHA issues a citation to an employer, it also offers the employer an opportunity for an informal conference with the OSHA Area Director to discuss citations, penalties, abatement dates, or any other information pertinent to the inspection.

The agency and the employer may work out a settlement agreement to resolve the matter and to eliminate the hazard. OSHA’s primary goal is correcting hazards and maintaining compliance rather than issuing citations or collecting penalties.

Alternatively, employers have 15 working days after receipt of citations and proposed penalties to formally contest the alleged violations and/or penalties by sending a written notice to the Area Director. OSHA forwards the contest to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission for independent review.

Citations, penalties, and abatement dates that are not challenged by the employer or settled become a final order of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

The ultimate goal
We know that employee safety is your number one priority. The regulations and guidelines provided by OSHA provide a great framework for achieving that goal.

Full compliance is possible by following these inspection guidelines and implementing any changes recommended by the compliance officer.