Oil and gas jobs involve rugged outdoor work in remote locations, and there’s no question that these jobs are dangerous. Oil and gas fatalities account for 70% of all fatalities in the mining industry.

There are also thousands of non-fatal incidents every year. Back and spinal injuries are amongthe top 9 most common non-fatal injuries suffered by oil and gas workers. Workers sometimes never return to work after back injuries, due the severity of their immobility and pain.

Hidden Challenges of Back Injuries

The tricky thing about back injuries is that they are sometimes not identified as the primary issue at the time an accident occurs. A worker may suffer a crushing blow or caught-between injury that seems to focus on the head or limbs. Back damage may only become more obvious down the line, during the rehabilitation phase.

Back injuries also result from repetitive motion, like bending to work on equipment and twisting to operate machines. Over time, a worker may begin to experience neck pain, lower back strain, radiating pain, and other indications of back trouble.

Adding another layer of confusion, workers may resist reporting back problems for months or years. In an industry where physical performance is highly-valued, they might not want to be seen as a complainer. This delays medical help, and increases the severity of chronic back problems.

A High Price

OSHA puts the total cost of U.S. workplace back injuries at $15 to $18 billion per year in direct costs and a $45 billion in indirect costs, like production losses and labor shortages. In the oil and gas industry, losing just one worker’s productivity can cost thousands of dollars a day.

While oil and gas injuries are on the decline overall, each incident is expensive for the employer and painful for the employee. Back injuries force workers to be off work for especially long periods. The National Institutes of Health found that 32% of workers could not return to work after 1 full month of recovery from a back injury.

That’s a costly productivity loss. One calculation by Drilling Contractor magazine showed that the cost of each lost worker was $62,500 and each restricted-work arrangement was $12,500 per event. The potential annual cost for a typical company was estimated at $1.2 million – a figure that doesn’t even include compensation from lawsuits.

Taking a Proactive Approach

For oil and gas companies, the best bet is a proactive stance that encourages workers to use protective gear, follow ergonomic recommendations, and report threats to their health immediately.

Here’s a list of best practices.

Reduce MMH

MMH, or (human) manual materials handling, is a major contributor to back injuries. As much as possible, phase out MMH in favor of machine-based lifting and moving. Use equipment, not human back strength, for repetitive tasks.

Increase Workflow Efficiency

Poor planning may result in unnecessary repetition of tasks and moving/storing activities. Consider improvements in motion and transportation using the Toyota “lean management” principle. It’s proven to have a positive effect on employee health.

Watch Your Weights

Simply decreasing the weight of handled objects can limit back injuries. Reduce weights by assigning two people to tasks instead of one, or split loads into multiple lighter containers.

Change Lifting to Lowering

Lowering objects causes less strain than lifting. Back strain can be prevented through a rearrangement of the work zone. Instead of forcing workers to lift objects up onto a truck, consider whether a movable platform could allow them to lower objects onto the truck bed instead. In a similar way, pulling is better than carrying and pushing is better than pulling.

Slow Down Repetitive Tasks

In the oil and gas industry, sometimes you can’t get around doing repetitive tasks. In these cases, allot more time. Slowing down repetitive tasks prevents injury and allows rest, which is proven to prevent back strain.

Alternate Heavy and Light

In zones with physically heavy workloads and lots of repetitive tasks, don’t force a core group of workers to remain on heavy tasks all day. Require workers to rotate jobs throughout the day, so they can take breather during lighter tasks.

Check Body Size Ergonomics

Ergonomic adjustments are terrific – as long as they are adjustable for varying body sizes. Provide safety gear that is thoroughly adjustable. Allow sufficient space in and around equipment for both large and small bodies. Limit twisting, bending, and reaching that can cause injury.

Monitor Load Shape

Workers are at higher risk of back injuries when they are carrying odd-shaped and imbalanced loads. Train workers how to balance loads, both by hand and with equipment. Change the shape of loads to prevent risky stacking. When loads must be carried by hand, they should be handled close to the body in zones with even walking surfaces.

Remember Pace and Breaks

Focus on pace of work and allow breaks, because they support rest and prevent injury. Oil and gas work requires a fast pace for long periods, but experts recommend 15-minute breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon in addition to meal breaks. If that’s not feasible, offer short breaks whenever possible.

Encourage a Culture of Safety

Remove barriers to employees reporting hazards, and empower them to put safety first. Try a reporting app like FirstHand by Zeteky, which pinpoints hazards through safety alerts.