Back pain a big OHS issue

Lower back pain is the second-greatest contributor of disability in Australia but workers are reluctant to deal with their injuries, according to new research.

The Konekt Market Report, which is the largest of its kind in Australia, analysed more than 113,000 compensable and non-compensable cases of back pain over a six year period.

It found that employees experiencing back pain either take their time reporting injuries or ignore them until they become debilitating.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around three million Australians (14 per cent of the population) suffer from low back pain.

“Last financial year saw an increase in the number of referrals being made relating to back injuries,” says Nicholas Ward, Product Manager with Konekt.

“While the total number of claims is decreasing and the average time lost associated with back strain injuries halved between 2000 and 2001 and 2010 and 2011, alarmingly we noticed an increase in the average delay from when an injury occurs to when it is reported and then referred for support and return to work services.”

Professor Chris Maher, director of the University of Sydney Medical School Musculoskeletal Division and one of the world’s top back pain specialists, said there are numerous misconceptions about the causes and treatment of back pain.

''We know that the worker with back pain, their employer and the clinician managing the worker’s back pain may misunderstand back pain, so we really need to think about educational programs targeting each of those groups,'' Maher said.

Data showed small and medium employers are shouldering the burden through higher rehabilitation costs. Significantly, small employers are, on average, waiting 114 weeks to refer employees for rehabilitation services.

"We found that the return to work rate for small business is 85%, compared with 90% for large businesses,” Ward said. “Smaller businesses are less likely to have internal expertise in relation to injury management [and] will be more reliant on external providers.”

Maher said one of the most important things that employers/managers can do to help workers with back pain is to become educated about the condition.

“Our understanding of how to best manage back pain has changed in the last decade. For example, surgery really has a quite limited role for workers with back pain,” he said.

He added that there are several steps that can help.

“The contemporary approach is to not go to bed. Rather, try to stay physically active – you don't need an x-ray and you should try to remain at work,” he said.