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Spine tuning

Ouch! That slight twinge as you moved the desk could result in months off with a bad back. Christine Green looks at how to reduce the risk

No one advised Annie Buxton, a Northumberland primary teacher, of the possible consequences of moving a desk in her classroom. Had they done so, the 34-year-old might not have found herself spending five months off work nursing a bad back.

"On reflection, I should have asked a colleague to help, but I just didn't think," she says. "Now I wish I had".

Annie is not alone. Research indicates that the main cause of accidents in school is from teachers lifting or carrying heavy equipment or books. Back injuries are the most common, often as a result of slipping, tripping and falling while carrying books or equipment.

All employers should assess the risks connected with handling or lifting at work and take relevant steps to eliminate possible accidents, according to a report about manual handling. In schools this might mean using trolleys, stepladders or stools to avoid lifting, stretching or having to stand on chairs.

However, it is worth remembering that lifting or handling items is not a designated part of a teacher's job. Most schools have "lifting" policies, but if you are unsure of the situation it is worth checking with your head or your union representative.

Laura, a 24-year-old newly qualified teacher, didn't realise how vulnerable her back was until she took her first primary post. "All the furniture was miniature-sized and getting down to the children's level meant I had to sit on small seats or lean over them. This put an enormous amount of strain on my back. Since starting yoga, I've never looked back".

Boyd Buser, a back pain specialist, says people can learn how to lift safely: "Whenever you place something on the floor, make sure that it is directly in front of you. Rather than bending your back, go down on one knee. Also, ask the head to invest in a stool with rollers - ideal for moving around the classroom as opposed to leaning over pupils"

Avoiding injury

- Clear up spillages immediately.

- Make sure you can always see over the top of things you are carrying.

- If there is no trolley when moving equipment, ask for help.

- Wear sensible shoes.

- Exercise your back regularly - swimming, walking and using exercise bikes are all excellent ways to strengthen back muscles.

- Always bend your knees and hips, not your back.

- Never twist and bend at the same time.

- Lift and carry objects close to your body.

- Avoid slumping in your chair or hunching your shoulders as you walk.

- Always use a chair with a backrest and sit with your feet flat on the floor. Every few minutes, change your sitting position.

How back problems occur Bending and stooping over low tables when addressing young pupils can put undue pressure on the back. Instead, crouch down beside the pupil, or pull up another chair and sit beside them at their own level.

- Standing in front of a class for any length of time can cause bad posture to develop, resulting in an aching back. So whenever possible, stand up straight. Should a twinge begin to develop, take several minutes to do some gentle stretching exercises.

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