Managing Back Pain in Industrial and Office Settings

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Todd Meier

In my first post on working with back pain, I talked about ways to help assess the employee’s situation and better understand his or her limitations. But once you have a grasp on how the back pain affects the employee’s ability to do work, how do you make accommodations to the employee’s work environment or job duties? There are no “one-size-fits-all” answers, but asking questions and regularly following up with the employee can lead to a more successful job accommodation.

Implementing Accommodations

By taking into consideration the input from the employee and the medical provider regarding the employee’s back pain and limitations, it is possible to begin reviewing workplace accommodations. A good resource to review examples is the Job Accommodation Network’s Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) for back conditions.1 In general, here are some important factors to review when implementing accommodations in office or industrial job settings.

For the office setting:

  • Does the chair provide proper comfort and support? If the chair has a compressed or worn-out seat cushion, is incorrectly adjusted, or if the seat back doesn’t make full contact with the employee, the chair may promote incorrect seating posture among other detrimental factors. As a helpful tool to review the chair, Cornell University created a seating evaluation form that provides a 1 to 10 ranking system.2
  • Is the desk sufficiently organized so that job tasks can be completed without regular exposure to awkward postures?
  • Can job duties be modified to allow a regular frequency of two- to three- minute micro-breaks every 20 to 30 minutes throughout the workday? These breaks could be as simple as the employee getting up and going to the copy machine or performing a few simple desk-side stretches.

For the industrial setting:

  • Can assistive devices be implemented to allow lifting to be within the employee’s assigned restrictions, such as power-assisted carts or other devices for the conveyance of materials?
  • How can the work area be arranged so that all tools are easily reachable at or near waist height? Can you provide stand/lean stools, task chairs and anti-fatigue mats to make the work environment more comfortable?
  • Can golf carts be made available for industrial maintenance workers to travel from one campus location to another? Could employees possibly use a scooter for interior building movement? This would be used by people with specific ambulation (walking or movement) restrictions who cannot move without an assistive device as a result of an operation or limited limb usage.

After making any accommodations, always follow up with the employee to review his or her progress, implement recommended changes and make any necessary adjustments along the way to further help alleviate the employee’s back pain. Asking the right questions up front will help guide the accommodation process through the right sequence, helping to avoid unnecessary delays and costly implementing of accommodations that aren’t the right fit.


1 Back Conditions. Job Accommodation Searchable Online Resource. Available at: Accessed July 5, 2012.

2 Cornell Ergonomic Seating Evaluation v21 Administration Instructions. Available at: Accessed July 5, 2012.