Education staff at risk of injury - 'just part of the job'?

By Lorna Taylor BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy, MCSP, HPC Registered

First published in Your Voice in April 2010

Have you experienced back, neck, shoulder, hip or knee discomfort? The chances are that if you work with young children you will have!

Are you familiar with sitting on children’s plastic chairs, stooping over and working at low tables, kneeling to assist children at the computer? If so, you are putting yourself at risk of developing a work-related musculoskeletal injury.

Today, there is a strong focus on employee health and well-being, with regulations to protect employees. However, in education, workplace injuries are commonly accepted ‘as part of the job’. Is this acceptable? Should employees working at low heights with children be put at risk of long-term injuries?

There is an inescapable problem facing adults who work with young children – height difference! As staff assist children at low heights, damaging postures are often adopted, including repetitive bending, twisting, over-stretching of the spine, hip-joint strain, and neck and shoulder muscle overuse from sitting (with knees higher than hips) on children’s chairs.

Whilst delivering the Healthy Backs School Education Programme with Derby City Council Healthy Schools Team and carrying out risk assessments, I discovered that the majority of primary staff had experienced work-related pain. Memorable comments (factual rather than complaining) included: ‘My back was so bad, I had to spend break times lying on the classroom floor.’ ‘I’ve spent £400 at the chiropractor’. ‘I don’t want to moan; they all have it too,’ ‘I don’t want to lose my job’ and ‘We just accept that we ache all over at the end of the day’. Sound familiar?

This anecdotal evidence echoes research undertaken on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2006. A survey found that 75% of primary school teachers suffered ongoing discomfort and pain due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as back, shoulder and neck problems, with 25% not reporting them to their employer. Alarmingly, nearly all teachers surveyed consider aches and pains ‘part of the job’.

With such under-reporting, a very serious problem affecting an incredibly valuable and important sector of employees is being masked. Awareness needs to be raised if it is to be addressed.

What can be done?

Let someone know – your head teacher, GP and Voice (enquiries@voicetheunion.org.uk , 01332 372337}. Reporting accidents and ill health at work is a legal requirement under RIDDOE (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995) ( www.hse.gov.uk/riddor ). Every work place must have a reporting system in place. Contact HSE (0845 300 9923) or Voice for further information. Don’t suffer in silence!

Dedicate staff meeting time to discuss experiences and risks. (See www.voicetheunion.org.uk/backs for a staff questionnaire). Share findings with your union health and safety representative.

A Primary School Back Care Policy – offering practical advice on such areas as spine anatomy, bags, lifting and carrying safely, sitting correctly, back-friendly solutions for everyday tasks and the importance of a healthy lifestyle – is available from Voice (www.voicetheunion.org.uk/backs ).

Lorna Taylor

Lorna Taylor is a Member of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Association of Paediatric Chartered Physiotherapists and professional member of BackCare – the Charity for Healthier Backs. Lorna has been working with the Derby City Healthy Schools Team since 2007 and works as an independant physiotherapist in her own practice, Children first Physiotherapy (01332 881665 www.childrenfirstphysio.co.uk ).

She runs ‘Healthy Backs’ workshops and has developed the Jolly Back chair – an ergonomically-designed low chair for education staff ( www.dlbltd.co.uk/jollyback ).

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