What the health professionals call debilitating musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) could be simply down to bad posture and a few minor changes to the way you work may be enough to put it right or prevent the problem from happening in the first place.
It's certainly in everyone's interest to stay healthy as the problem of back pain costs UK businesses dearly each year. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that 4.9 million working days were lost in 2003/04 due to absences from back-related MSD and that in 2004/05, 452,000 people in Great Britain suffered from a work-related illness, most of it back-related. What all this means to the c-store retailer is the added cost of having to hire extra cover or coping short-handed when someone is off sick, or having staff who may not be able to work productively.
Retail workers are especially prone to bad backs thanks to the time they have to spend standing at a checkout and stacking shelves. According to the shopworkers' union USDAW, long hours spent at the checkout and lifting heavy loads contribute to an 'epidemic of back pain' within the retail industry. USDAW general secretary John Hannett says: "There are not many industries where workers are expected to handle up to two tonnes of products every four hours. Two people in every 100 suffer from back pain and it can ruin careers. It is vital that checkouts are well designed to reduce back problems."
While Health & Safety Executive MSD programme manager John Price acknowledges that checkout staff do suffer, he adds: "HSE research on MSD risk to checkout staff in supermarkets found that complaints of back, neck and arm pain are common - but only rarely is checkout work likely to do serious damage. There are no specific legal limits on time spent standing but employees should be able to take adequate rest breaks and have suitable seating provided during those breaks."
Chartered physiotherapist Mark Potter maintains that back injuries are a common problem for many workers and 40% of his patients suffer from work-related back problems. He confirms: "Standing at the checkout for too long can lead to back injury, but any work that involves staying in one position for too long is potentially harmful. The answer is to move around and vary your position regularly."
The subject is so important that the HSE is again running its Better Backs! campaign in partnership with local authorities, to promote effective ways of preventing back injury at work, managing pain and raising awareness of employers' responsibilities.
It hopes this year's event will be as successful as Backs! 2005, in which radio and press ads were used alongside on-site safety checks by health and safety officers and local authorities.
The HSE says the campaign was extremely effective: 39% of employers and 32% of workers surveyed said they recalled the publicity and 46% of the employers stated they would take action to reduce injuries.
Price says: "Health and safety at work has definitely improved. There are fewer fatalities and major injuries. The major issues now relate to occupational health, which includes MSD, and it is important that employers are continually reminded of their obligations. We want to involve as many people as possible in Better Backs! 2006."
Retailers can apply for a free Better Backs! campaign pack that contains advice on everything from handling staff absences due to back pain to case studies. Go to www.hse.gov.uk/msd/campaigns/index.htm for more information.
Employers not only have a financial incentive to take back problems seriously but a legal one, too. There is a legal obligation to safeguard staff from any injury at work. The basis of British health and safety law is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which sets out the general duties employers have towards employees and members of the public, and employees have to themselves and to each other. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1999, is more explicit about employer's responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
The main requirement is for employers to carry out a risk assessment; employers with five or more employees need to record their findings.
As most back problems are triggered by manual handling jobs - such as lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying heavy loads - there are specific regulations for this covered in the Manual Handling Operations (MHO) Regulations, 1992.
Price explains: "The regulations basically refer to the avoidance of doing excessive manual handling jobs that can lead to injury; to assess the risks of these jobs and identify those that perhaps don't need doing, or can be avoided, to reduce injury as much as possible. He adds: "We need to ensure businesses are aware of the laws and make sure they keep on top of them."
If you or your staff are unlucky enough to suffer from back pain there are over the counter products that can help and natural therapies to ease pain.
Common pain relief products that are available include Ibuleve gel; a range of Deep Heat products; and Movelat relief cream and relief gel.
A TENs (transcutaneous eletrical nerve stimulation) machine can also be used to relieve back pain. They deliver small electrical pulses to the body via electrodes placed on the skin. The research evidence to support the use of TENS machines is not strong, but they are still fairly popular.
Sound-wave therapy also purports to relieve pain as well as speed up the natural healing process. Novasonic Popular is one such device but it is a bit pricey, at about £114.99.
Massaging pillows for the back and neck are widely available, and Healthspan's Devils Claw is just one example of the many alternative natural pain-killers on the market.
Meanwhile, there is a range of foot-care products on the market that purport to help avoid problems brought about by hours spent on your feet. Profoot, for example, produces Gel Max insoles that are said to help to relieve heel, knee and lower back pain.
Good posture can greatly improve and prevent back problems. Here is some simple advice that could save a whole lot of pain:
? try to avoid rounding your back: imagine you are being lifted by a string fixed to the top of your head
? try to avoid hunching your shoulders and tensing your neck when stressed
? wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes - high heels put pressure on your lower back
Moving and lifting:
? always look at alternatives to lifting - can you push or pull it?
? lift only what you can handle and get help if you need it
? bend your knees and keep your back straight and your feet apart when lifting
? avoid lifting and twisting at the same time
? always lift and carry close to your body
? bend your knees rather than your back when putting a load down
? use an upright chair which supports your lower back
? try supporting the small of your back (the bit that curves in above your hips) with a small cushion or rolled-up towel
? get up and stretch every 20-30 minutes.