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Avoiding Back Injuries On the Job as a Special Education Teacher

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/11/2012

Look after your back - you only get one! Back pain from work related back injuries is a common problem which can be avoided in many cases by just following the manual handling principles designed to keep you safe at work. Avoid the thousands of dollars spent in lost work time and medical bills!

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    Work-Related Back Injuries

    Work-related back injuries can be due to a long-term, cumulative injury sustaind from performing a repetitive task, or they can occur during an acute, short-duration event, like a trip or fall. Either can cause significant back pain.

    Check out how two different, fictional special education workers have incurred back injuries on the job, and then think about the manual handling principles that might have kept them safe:

    First Up Is Maggie

    Maggie works in the art room in a special education setting where she is constantly leaning over tables and reaching around students to meet their physical needs. She has never bothered to set up her working stations in a way that suits her height and build. She always tries to do the best for her students and often works long hours cutting, pasting, organizing displays and preparing materials for students. She takes an anti-inflammatory when her back troubles her, and sometimes sees a masseur to relieve her lower back pain, which is a common site of back pain. She lacks assertiveness and communication skills with her peers, and so rarely asks for new equipment for herself. She has never learned about manual handling principles such as positioning yourself in a stable, comfortable position with your body well supported or moving your whole body to a new position rather than leaning outside your base of support.

    And Then Ben Takes a Tumble...

    Ben has taken a group of students on a camping trip. One of the visually impaired students stumbles on a log near the campfire. Ben makes a split second decision: He lunges toward the student and reaches out to catch him before he falls into the fire. Ben feels a sudden, searing burst of back pain and knows he has done some serious damage. He thinks instantly of how he had ignored the therapist only last week who had warned him about catching falling students. This inadvertent manual handling task has caused long-term problems and back pain that may last for months or even years! Oh, Ben--if only you'd known that avoiding work-related back injuries could be as simple as learning manual handling principles! You would not have attempted to stop the movement of an object that was falling away from you, and you would have know to keep heavy loads over your base of support!

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    Prevent the Preventable - Tips on Avoidance

    Doing what we can as teachers to prevent back injuries and possible ongoing back pain should be an important part of our special education training. There are many situations unique to the special education milieu that mean teachers are often more significantly at risk of back injury.

    Here are some tips:

    • Take the time to organize the layout of your room well. Don't overcrowd the room with displays or equipment, and leave plenty of space for moving from one area to another.
    • Use safe lifting techniques and transfers and avoid physically moving a student unless you have the skills, training and time to do so well.
    • Avoid unnecessary lifts and transfers. Ask yourself - is this move needed?
    • Don't lean around a student in a wheelchair to complete a task. Instead, come in front of them to provide support and position yourself so you are not placing a strain on your back.
    • Use a caster chair to move easily around the room.
    • Don't stand on a chair, table, bench, etc. to put up a display, not even 'just this once.' Get a ladder or step stool and do it properly every time.
    • Try not to catch a student who is falling. It's a manual handling recipe for disaster! This is very hard to do as a teacher when every instinct you have says to catch, protect and help your students. But ultimately in many cases both you and your students will be safer if you allow them to fall or perhaps guide their fall if you can do so safely, rather than trying to use your muscle power to prevent the downward movement of a student.
    • Watch for students who have conditions that change their physical needs over time (e.g., a student with cerebral palsy may have more athetoid movements which impact on safe transfers when they are tired or over excited). A student with muscular dystrophy may be less able to help with a transfer as their skills and condition deteriorates.
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    Manual Handling and Safe Lifting

    Most workplaces run workshops on manual handling principles and safe lifting with a view to reducing the toll (financial and physical) of work-related back injuries. Learning about manual handling principles and safe lifting can help not only with moving people, but also in all those day-to-day tasks. Even moving a box from a shelf counts as a manual handling task! Learning how to do these tasks safely will greatly improve your chances of staying healthy on the job.