Back health and safety tips for caregivers

Back health and safety tips for caregivers

Taking care of yourself so you can take care of others

Caregivers are often in situations where they are required to physically assist individuals receiving care so back support and safety is essential.

As a family caregiver, your back health and safety must be a top priority if you want to stay healthy so you can help the people in your care.

Your caregiver responsibilities may include providing assistance with standing up or sitting down. You may also assist with care related tasks such as dressing, bathing, lifting loads of laundry, carrying groceries, performing housework, etc. See our Elizz article on How to Help Someone Stand Up Safely.

As the primary caregiver, you may also assist with transfers or repositioning. This is when the individual needs assistance to move from one location to another. See our Elizz article on Assisting a Person with Mobility Issues.

When providing care, it is easy to get into awkward postures that leave you bent over, twisted, kneeling, squatting, etc. This is especially true in home settings where there may be cluttered pathways or heavy items to lift and decreased space to perform the care task properly.

As a caregiver, you may not have experience providing care or have limited teaching or training on how to perform transfers. However, there are strategies and devices that can increase the safety of the transfer or self-care task for both you and the individual receiving care.

Caregiver back injuries:

Back injuries are reported most often as the primary reason for loss of time from work (BLS 2012). Although family caregivers are not included in this statistic, you are also at risk for back injuries while providing care.

Caregiver back injuries can occur from:

  • Acute or sudden events (for example when an individual falls) or
  • From accumulation or build-up of damage over time. Use of poor body mechanics such as forward bending and lifting or reaching beyond your center of gravity can lead to a build-up of damage to the discs in your back.

How to reduce caregiver back injuries when providing care

There are three key things that you can do to prevent caregiver back injuries:

  • Ensure proper posture
  • Know how much you can lift
  • Stay within the lifting safety zone

Proper posture

  1. Bend at the hips and knees
  2. Keep a straight back
  3. Maintain the natural curve in your back
In a posture where the back is curved while carrying an object, the discs of the spine have to  support the whole load. However, in a posture where the back is straight while carrying a load, the bones of the spine can share the load with the discs and there is less risk of injury.
Images used with permission from Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), 2015


As a caregiver, you can put yourself at a greater risk of back injury when you add the weight of an object or person to a bent-over posture. The back can be pulled further into a bent-over posture if the load you are lifting is too heavy, if the load is too far from your body, or if your muscles are fatigued.

To reduce the risk of injury when lifting, keep the individual/object you are moving as close to your body as possible, use proper posture, and reduce the amount of weight you are lifting.

How much is safe to lift?

Under ideal conditions, caregivers should never lift more than approximately 35 pounds of another person’s weight (NIOSH, 2007). Humans are dynamic and multiple factors can affect both you and the person you are caring for when assisting with transfers.

The Lifting Safety Zone:

Understanding the “Lifting Safety Zone” will assist you when you are working in an awkward posture. Lifting outside of this area can cause pressure and injury to the discs of your spine in addition to your muscles. The Lifting Safety Zone is:

  • From mid-thigh to shoulder height
  • The area directly in front of your body
  • Extends to about the length of your forearm and hand

Examples of proper lifting techniques:

The following are some examples of situations where it is easy for caregivers to get into awkward postures resulting in the use of poor body mechanics.

Example: Lifting a laundry hamper

Potential injury risk factors:

  • The weight of the hamper (wet vs dry clothing)
  • The amount of clothing in the hamper
  • The size and shape of the hamper may impact how close you can get the hamper to your body and the position of your arms for lifting
  • The distance that the hamper is being carried
  • The location of the hamper

Potential solutions:

  • Confirm whether the item needs to be lifted
  • Use a basket/container that is a less awkward shape
  • Decrease the weight in the basket – make 2 or more trips
  • Minimize the distance required to carry the items

Example: Reaching across something

Reaching across the bathtub to obtain the shampoo or reaching across the bed to assist an individual with getting dressed or completing their exercises can be harmful.

Potential injury risk factors:

  • Reaching so the arm is further away from the body
  • Adding weight to the arm while it is far away from the body

Potential solutions:

  • Set up items so they are grouped together and within reach
  • Ask the individual to move closer to you if possible in order to minimize reaching
  • Use assistive devices such as a Reacher instead of leaning to reach something
  • Decrease the weight of the object being lifted

Example: Using a bent back posture

  • Avoid bending your back when leaning over to complete tasks such as washing a person's feet in the bathrub or lifting a person's legs over the side of the bathtub.

Potential injury risk factors:

  • Use of a bent back posture can place more force on the spine
  • The weight being lifted
  • How often the task is being completed

Potential solutions:

  • Try to minimize the bent back posture - you may want to use a stool
  • Use assistive devices to help wash the feet or provide a more thorough cleaning of the feet outside of the bathtub
  • Use a leg lifter (device with a loop for the foot and a strap or handle), towel, or strap to help lift the leg over the side of the bathtub

Example: Lifting from a low surface.

Potential injury risk factors:

  • Increased risk of using a bent back posture
  • If the individual is being transferred from a low surface they may have more difficulty assisting with the transfer - this will require the caregiver to lift more weight

Potential Solution:

  • Use an assistive device to decrease the risk of injury. For example, if the individual has difficulty transferring on and off of the toilet because the seat is too low, a raised toilet seat or a Versamode (commode over the toilet) to raise the height of the seat may be necessary. The increased height can reduce the amount of assistance required and thus decrease the risk of injury.

By adjusting your posture when completing caregiving tasks you can decrease your risk of injury. Remember that caregivers must first care for themselves before they can care for others. Your health and safety are also a priority!

At Elizz, we provide caregiver support for you and home care services for those who depend on you. Elizz is a Canadian company powered by Saint Elizabeth, a national not-for-profit health care organization that has been caring for Canadians since 1908.

References:

BLS. (2011, 15 February, 2012). Nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work, 2010. Available: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/osh2.pdf

Waters, T. (2007). When is it safe to manually lift a patient?
American Journal of Nursing, 107(8), 53–59.

 

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