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Weightlifter Dave watches your back

HEALTH - When Raynesway decided to help its workers protect their backs it turned to a former Olympic weightlifter for inspiration.Paul Howard reports

ACCORDING to Dave Snowdon, you do not have to be a Samson or a Hercules to be able to lif t heavy or awkward items without injuring yourself.

Mr Snowdon should know. Although bearing more than a passing resemblance to these legendary strongmen, his success as an Olympic weightlifter and former world record holder ? not to mention national weightlifting coach and conditioning expert for two British Olympic teams ? is not just the result of sheer strength. Equally important is an understanding of how to mitigate the strains placed on his body.

Yet as Mr Snowdon acknowledges, one of the problems const ruct ion workers create for themselves is the macho culture that makes a lot of them behave as if they are practised musclemen.

The extent to which good lifting techniques are absent in construction is borne out by accident and injury statistics from the HSE. One in six construction workers (17 per cent) suffer back pain either all of the t ime or most days.

Manual handling at work is the main cause.

It accounts for 14 per cent of all major injuries and two-f if ths of over-three-day injuries.

Mr Snowdon is founder and proprietor of Pristine Condition, a company that t rains people in how to lif t and move things properly. For over two years he and his company have been involved in training the employees of Raynesway Construction Southern on its Area 3 maintenance contract for the Highways Agency. They were brought in after RCS became aware of the high incidence of back injuries among staff.

'Three years ago on this contract we analysed the incidence of injuries and accidents and there was a surprising number of back injuries in a company of this size. We found more than one injury a week caused by or related to lifting, ' says Norman Jones, business support manager.

Since Pristine has been involved, this has fallen considerably. 'In the past two months I can't think of a lifting accident or related inju ry, ' says Mr Jones.

The changes took some time to bear fruit, however. 'There was no immediate improvement. Health and safety in general is fighting against the macho image of the industry, so first we had to change the working culture, ' he says.

In equally macho industries such as refuse collection, Mr Snowdon says Pristine has managed to reduce to zero the incidence of work-related lifting and manual handling injuries. 'Zero is a realistic aim.

100 per cent accident free is do-able.' A significant part of the training provided is devoted to dispelling common fallacies, such as the convent ional 'wisdom' of lif t ing with bent knees and a straight back. Mr Snowdon says: 'This isn't realistic and workers know it ? they say it's a load of rubbish.

In certain circumstances you just can't do this. There's no single right way to lift.' Another important aspect is to concentrate on the range of everyday movements that can be made by the people who are being trained. 'The aim is not to make them touch their toes if they can't. You don't have to be a strongman to lift things safely, ' he says.

All this is done in the context of the actual working environment of those being trained. 'The aim is to make training down to earth and hands-on. If people are working in a 3 ft hole, we do the pract ical demonst rat ions in a 3 f t hole.' According to Mr Snowdon, this helps overcome initial resistance. 'It's not a question of us telling people how to do their job. Th is will never work with guys who've been lifting slabs for 20 years ? they can't be told we know how to do their job better. They're the experts at the job; we're the experts at looking at the body and how to take the pressures off it.' Just as important as the training is the process put in place to monitor lifting techniques used over the long term.

One element of this is a 'root cause analysis' of any injuries or accidents. 'We don't just ident ify the cause of an accident or inju ry, but provide a written report as well, ' says Mr OUNGSnowdon. 'It's not to beat people over the head with, but to provide information and to help them avoid having the same injury again or suffering from it for a long time.' As well as diagnosing problems that originate at work it can also identify underlying causes of back trouble. 'We of ten f ind problems caused by activities at home. These can be innocently aggravated at work ? work was just the straw that broke the camel's back. When you point this out, most people are delighted the problem has been solved.' Another aspect of the ongoing monitoring is three-monthly meetings to discuss what to do about any reported incidents or to develop new working practices.

Time before and after these meetings is factored in to allow people to speak to the trainer on a one-to-one basis as well to allow specific concerns to be raised. 'It's an opportunity for workers to discuss a near miss, or twinges, ' says Mr Snowdon.

This individual feedback is complemented by a 'support team' with the skills to monitor what is going on and to take action if they see bad lifting practices.

Mr Snowdon believes this is vital. 'The key to our success is the backing of Norman and his support team. If you train people they may learn but then they'd slip back into bad habits. We never let go. We follow everything up so the prof ile of working safely is high and people remember and learn for the long term. It's not just a tick-in-the-box exercise.'