Back and Neck Pain in Mining Operators

Back and neck pain in Operators are undoubtably the highest prevalent injuries contributing to LTI’s in mining. Anecdotally our clinic consistently finds a few workers every week presenting with acute jarred necks or backs. Fortunately with optimal early Physio intervention the vast majority of these episodes will settle within a few weeks, however there are some injures which are more severe with a protracted course of recovery as well as those that are chronic recurrent type episodes. Also many operators experience regular “soreness and stiffness” about their backs (lower back pain-LBP) and necks related to their work. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

The bad news: sitting makes you weak, stiff and fat…

The contributors to back and neck pain can be divided into work factors and personal factors, and there is a significant interplay between both of these.

Work Factors:

Prolonged Sitting. Although there has been some debate about whether sitting itself is an independent risk for LBP certainly there is strong evidence that prolonged uninterrupted sitting is linked with higher reported LBP and significantly more so with the addition of vibration impacts. The issue is that the spine is under a relatively static load, with increased disc pressure and lack of movement. Further to this many workers often have relatively inactive lifestyles outside of work which further compounds the deconditioning effect.. It’s what your’e not doing outside of work which is also a big part of the problem.

Vibration and jarring. Operators are exposed to both low levels of frequent vibration as well as occasional higher impact shock loads. The modern air ride seats help absorb much of the low level vibration, the intensity of these vibrations are affected by speed of driving, but it’s the unexpected higher level shocks that cause most of the damage. Common examples are a large piece of material unexpectedly dropping into the tray, driving (too fast) over a hole, reversing in a dozer over a rock or into a hole or the loader striking the tray sideways. The effect of these impacts can be worsened depending on the operator posture at the time of impact (for example if sitting twisted in the seat reversing at the time) or caught unaware of the impending shock load.

Personal Factors:

The Deconditioning effect. Prolonged sitting causes a relative deconditioning of the muscles about the spine. There is a lack of movement when we sit, the spine is not moved through its normal range of movement and can get stiff. Movement is very healthy for our spines as joints are lubricated, nutrients pumped into tissues and muscles activate. As we sit relatively still the muscles are only active at a very low level and become fatigued and relatively weak. This is why its important to move as much as possible, “motion is lotion”-get up out of the seat and work on general fitness outside of work to remain strong. Unfortunately many Operators struggle to maintain regular fitness and become overweight and further deconditioned. 

Previous Injury. Workers who have had previous significant injury to their back or neck also unfortunately have a higher risk of re-injury. These workers especially should work on maintaining optimal strength and fitness to help reduce re-injury risk.

The good news: What can you do about it: …get strong, supple and fit!

Get Moving. As much as possible. Get out of the seat whenever the opportunity arises at work, short breaks even for a minute or so help to reduce stiffness. Perform some gentle exercises when you stand up to reverse your posture (see fig 1). Ideally for dozer operators if you can task share with a digger operator this helps too. Walk around during work when you can and on your days off walking more also brings many health benefits .
Get safe. Operate safely. Consider driving conditions accordingly and take care not to drive too quickly over rough terrain. How you drive makes a big difference to those impact shocks.
Get posture. Practice Re-setting your posture regularly, this will help your spinal muscle endurance (see fig 2) 
Get Recovered. Use exercises and fitness. Just like sports people consider recovery exercise on your days off eg. pool work is fantastic for this. A nice remedial massage can also be useful to relieve some of those knots if youv’e had a rough week. Optimal sleep and nutrition also helps recovery processes.
Get stronger. Counter the deconditioning by the protective effects of appropriate strengthening. Home core exercises are great (see fig 3) or there are other ways of staying strong including the gym- make sure that you have suitable supervision though.
Get help. If you have ongoing problems and pain. See the Physio for some professional support. Check out our Get Back quantified back and neck testing and rehabilitation program which has delivered excellent results across the globe and now available in Singleton.
man doing back extensions while standing
Fig. 1. Back Extensions in standing. Hands on hips and arch backwards. Do 10 times every 1 hour.
man maintaining sitting posture
Fig 2. Sitting posture. Bring pelvis forwards (creating arch in lower back), chest up and chin slightly tucked in as you imagine lengthening your spine without being too rigid. Hold 15 secs. Re-set every time you have to stop vehicle.
man doing core exercises on floor
man doing exercises on floor mat
Fig 3. The McGill “big 4” core exercises. 
 1) Bird/ dog. 4 point kneeling extend arm and opposite leg maintaining balance. Hold 3 secs, repeat 3 x5-10 reps each side 
2) Modified curl up. Start position as shown, 1 leg straight with same side arm supporting neck, other knee bent to 90 deg. Reach forwards with arm as chestjust comes off ground. Hold 10 secs, 10 times each side 
3) Side plank. As shown. Hold position 15-30 secs 3-5 times each side (easier version is from knees) 
4) Front plank. As shown. Hold 30 secs to 1 min maintaining straight posture and breathe.
man doing stretches on mat
man holding pose to strengthen muscles

Bad vibrations : a handbook on whole-body vibration exposure in mining / [compiled and written by Barbara McPhee, Gary Foster, Airdrie Long] 2001

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