How to Protect Your Back When You’re on Your Feet All Day

Standing without breaks and repetitive, focused work can be hard on backs and legs. Give yourself some support.

Photo: Two work colleagues walking and talking

A few years ago, a Mayo Clinic medical professor warned that "sitting is the new smoking," referring to the health detriments that a sedentary lifestyle can spur. The antidote was simple: In addition to exercising more, we all need to get up from our desks or sofas and move more regularly. But for people whose work involves standing for most of their shifts or doing heavy lifting—assembly line, factory, and construction workers, for example—are also at risk for health problems, specifically musculoskeletal injuries.

Musculoskeletal disorders account for more than 400,000 injuries per year, as well as for 33 percent of worker compensation costs—and a lot of physical and emotional hardship for workers. "We see injuries of all sorts" in line workers, says James Casady, MPT, president of Boston-area-based Platinum Physical Therapy. "The most common are plantar fasciitis in feet, knee pain, and low back pain," with clients who are on their feet all day. Casady offers some simple physical therapy remedies to relieve some of that stress.

Get Standing Support
"People end up standing on concrete all day," Casady says. "It's extra hard on all your joints." If the workplace permits it, find a thick pad—at least an inch in thickness—to stand on. This helps take the stress off the joints.

Bolster Your Shoes
Workers standing on their feet all day need shoes that offer as much support as possible—something with good arch support, like a running shoe, or the supportive rubber clogs or shoes that medical professionals and chefs sometimes wear. If your workplace requires closed shoes, invest in over-the-counter orthotics, or gel insoles, for extra support.

Watch the Lifting
"You always hear it, but it's true: Bend your knees," Casady advises. "Make sure you're using your legs and not your back. The muscles in the legs are much bigger than the muscles in the back, so you want to take the strain off the back."

Change It Up
Exactly how to change your movements is job- and situation-specific, but all workers should be mindful of generally changing their positions. "If you sit all day, take standing breaks. If you stand all day, take sitting breaks. Change your posture," Casady says.

Keep the Work at Arm's Length
If you're working on an assembly line doing repetitive work, be aware of where your project physically is in relation to your eyes, your hands, and your waist. If you're standing in front of a conveyor belt all day, Casady says, "you want whatever your hands are doing to be at a natural height in front of you. You don't want to bend forward, and you don't want to reach up to do work that is eight or more hours a day." The work should be positioned at waist height, and directly in front of you. (For more specifics on how much physical distance is advised between worker and focused work, visit EHS Today.) Avoid reaching off to one side or the other, leaning, or twisting the waist or back as a repetitive motion. Also, don't lock the knees—that puts undue pressure on them, and wears down knee joints more quickly.

Take a Break
Depending on their specific workplace rules, workers should take a break at least every hour, for three to five minutes. If you can walk to the water fountain or bathroom, do it. If you can't leave your station, march in place or move in whatever way gives the repetitive work a pause. "Static non-movement is what hurts us the most," Casady says. And as often as possible, stretch—forward bends, rowing motions, and arm and leg stretches.