Strains and sprains are by far the most common injuries in Australian workplaces.
According to Safe Work Australia’s analysis of work-related injuries in 2021-22, sprains and strains accounted for the majority of workers’ compensation claims.
These injuries usually happen when workers lift, push or carry something heavy or awkward, which then puts a strain on muscles or ligaments.
Understanding the difference between injuries and the factors that contribute to the prevalence of strains and sprains is crucial for safeguarding the wellbeing of Australian workers.
Difference between strains and sprains
Strains are often referred to as ‘pulled’ muscles.
They occur when muscles are stretched beyond their normal limits or torn due to overexertion.
These injuries commonly affect the muscles around joints, such as the back and neck, and can result from lifting heavy objects, poor posture or repetitive movements.
Strains manifest as pain, swelling and limited range of motion, posing a significant challenge to affected workers.
Conversely, sprains involve the stretching or tearing of ligaments, the connective tissues that bind bones together at joints. Typically occurring in areas like the ankles, wrists or knees, sprains are often the result of sudden twists, falls or impacts.
Symptoms include pain, swelling and bruising, with the severity ranging from mild to acute.
Understanding the distinctions between strains and sprains is essential for targeted prevention and effective treatment.
Causes of strains and sprains in Australian workplaces
While strains and sprains can happen in a wide range of scenarios, specific workplace conditions play a significant role in increasing their frequency.
Identifying these causes is a crucial step in devising comprehensive preventive strategies.
1. Manual handling
Manual handling, encompassing activities like lifting, carrying and pushing heavy loads, stands out as a primary contributor to strains and sprains in Australian workplaces.
Industries such as construction, manufacturing and healthcare, where physical tasks are routine, are particularly susceptible.
Failure to adhere to proper lifting techniques, and the absence of ergonomic considerations, increase the risk of these injuries.
2. Repetitive movements
Repetitive tasks, prevalent in sectors like assembly line manufacturing, data entry and food processing, contribute significantly to strains and sprains.
The constant repetition of motions, whether typing on a keyboard or performing intricate assembly tasks, places strain on specific muscles and joints, making workers susceptible to these injuries over time.
3. Poor ergonomics
In workplaces dominated by technology and sedentary work, poor ergonomics contribute to strains and sprains.
Prolonged periods of sitting, improper desk setups and inadequate equipment can lead to musculoskeletal issues, including back and neck strains.
The rise of remote work has further heightened the importance of creating ergonomically sound home office environments.
Treating strains and sprains at work
It’s crucial to act quickly to minimise the severity of an injury and facilitate a speedier recovery.
RICER is the standard first aid technique used to manage strains and sprains. RICER stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation and Refer. It’s the sequence of essential steps for injury treatment and quick recovery.
- Rest: Encourage the person to rest the injured area. This should include stopping any work-related activities that could exacerbate the strain or sprain.
- Ice: Apply an ice pack or cold compress to the injured area. This helps reduce swelling and mildly numbs the pain. Ensure that the ice is wrapped in a cloth to prevent direct contact with the skin.
- Compression: Use a compression bandage to minimise swelling. Make sure it's snug but not too tight as excessive pressure can impede blood circulation.
- Elevation: Elevate the injured limb to reduce swelling. For example, a patient with a sprained ankle should prop their leg up on a chair or cushion.
- Refer: Seek medical advice for an assessment of the severity of the injury. A medical professional can prepare an injury management plan for recovery and rehabilitation.
A workplace first aid kit should contain all the necessary first aid supplies to treat strains and sprains.
Keeping workplace first aid kits fully stocked and up-to-date ensures worker safety and wellbeing.
Preventing strains and sprains in the workplace
Preventing strains and sprains in the workplace is a strategic investment in the health and safety of employees, organisational efficiency and financial stability.
Beyond the immediate benefits of reduced injuries and improved productivity, prevention cultivates a positive and caring workplace culture.
1. Redesigning workspaces
Implementing ergonomic interventions is one of the primary preventive measures against strains and sprains in the workplace. This includes designing workstations that promote proper posture, providing adjustable furniture and tools and encouraging regular breaks to prevent the prolonged periods of static posture that contribute to musculoskeletal issues.
Government initiatives, such as Safe Work Australia’s guide on ergonomics and workstation setup, serve as valuable resources for employers and employees alike.
By prioritising ergonomic considerations, Australian workplaces can create environments that reduce the risk of strains and sprains.
2. Empowering workers
Empowering workers with the knowledge and skills to identify and mitigate potential risks can help prevent workplace strains and sprains.
Training programs and workplace signage that focus on proper lifting techniques, ergonomics and the importance of taking breaks can significantly reduce the incidence of strains and sprains.
Work Health & Safety Authorities across Australia offer a range of resources and training materials aimed at enhancing workplace safety.
By investing in education and training, employers contribute to a culture of safety where workers actively participate in improving their wellbeing.
3. Early workplace intervention
Timely intervention plays a crucial role in preventing minor strains and sprains in the workplace from escalating into more severe conditions
Establishing accessible reporting mechanisms, providing prompt medical attention and facilitating early rehabilitation contribute to faster recovery and minimise the long-term impact on workers’ health.
Recognising the signs of strains and sprains and taking swift action can help break the cycle of these injuries in the workplace.
Strains and sprains are silent, pervasive injuries that affect Australian workers across all industries.
From manual handling to poor ergonomics, the causes are diverse and demand a comprehensive approach that integrates education, ergonomic design and early intervention.
As Australia’s most common workplace injuries, strains and sprains shouldn’t just be treated but prevented.
Tackling workplace strains and sprains will lead to a safer and healthier workforce.