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UNISON SURVEY CHARTS THE GROWING PAIN OF BACK-BREAKING WORK

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'I don't tell my employers about my back pain because we don't get any sick pay. I just look forward to the weekend...
'I don't tell my employers about my back pain because we don't get any sick pay. I just look forward to the weekend and hope I will be fit enough for Monday morning. I don't know how much damage I am doing in the long term'.

These are the words of a homecare worker from a new survey* by UNISON,

which reveals that a shocking 81% of workers regularly or sometimes

experience work-related back pain. For one in five, the pain is so bad

that they have been forced to take time off work in the last 12 months.

Dave Prentis, deputy general secretary of UNISON, said:

'The results of this survey make shocking reading. Back injuries can be prevented and yet every year 300,000 people are forced to endure the agony of back pain. We are working in line with government policy and making prevention a key priority for the union. Lifting people is one of the most common causes of back injury for UNISON members. This is a major hazard for nurses, home carers and residential workers. Half the accidents in nursing and residential homes are a direct result of manual handling.

UNISON believes that no one should ever have to lift a person unaided.

'Lifting heavy objects can also cause back pain and members such as refuse collection workers, caretakers, porters, cleaners and gardeners are particularly vulnerable. Safe working practices and a safe working

environment are the key to prevention, as well as professional training.

Any damage to the spine can make an everyday activity either impossible or extremely painful, and in many cases can lead to being incapacitated for weeks or even for life'.

Ambulance workers were the largest group of UNISON members to experience back pain with 36% saying they have problems followed by care workers (32%), nurses (31%), and 30% of catering, laundry, portering, cleaning and domestic staff also amongst the list of sufferers. Those lifting people, heavy equipment and heavy boxes were most at risk and many of those surveyed believed that inadequate staffing levels were to blame.

Many believed that their working environment contributed to the risk of manual handling injury. For example a care assistant working with adults with learning disabilities said: 'There is a hoist provided, but because of the layout of the workplace it cannot always be used' and a nursing auxiliary reported 'in one of the patient's toilets we cannot get a hoist in, so if a patient falls, we have to lift them.'

More than a third of respondents (38%) said there was insufficient space for safe handling procedures and over a quarter (26%) said there were slippery, cluttered or uneven floor surfaces in their workplace. UNISON member Alison Hockaday knows about this to her cost. As a result of a slipping accident at work she had to have her right leg amputated below the knee.

The survey revealed that training varied enormously between different

groups of members. Eighty-two per cent of those carrying out manual

handling work had received training in safe handling and lifting. However, 45% of these had only received training amounting to less than a day. An occupational therapist summed this problem up saying: 'Although I have attended mandatory manual handling courses and these have been of a high standard, it seems to me that one day is not sufficient time to allow techniques to be learnt through safe practice.'

Ambulance workers reported that 97% received training yet only 32% of

nursery workers and classroom assistants were given any training. One

refuse worker whose job involved loading rubbish into a dustcart above

chest height said: 'we have wheelie bins and find problems with arms,

shoulders and wrists due to the weight of the bins and surfaces to be

dragged across, such as gravel.' He had not been given any training.

Dave Prentis went on to say:

'One slip, twist or wrong move can lead to a lifetime of pain. Back

injuries ruin lives and careers. Every year UNISON gets millions of pounds in compensation for our members who have suffered back injuries at work. We want to work in partnership with employers to reduce the risk of accidents. If manual handling can't be avoided, employers must take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of injury to employees to the lowest level reasonably practical, and the key to this is proper risk assessments.'

- UNISON survey of manual handling and back pain in the public sector

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