A pain in the class: Survey gets the back story

1st April 2011 at 01:00
Two-thirds of primary and early-years staff suffer, but very few report their injuries

Lilliputian children's furniture, extra-low sinks and sitting on the floor with pupils are leading to serious health problems among staff in primary and early-years classrooms, research has found.

A survey showed that two-thirds of workers in primary and early-years classrooms have received treatment for back and joint problems as a result of working in child-sized environments.

Some had paid hundreds of pounds from their own pockets to seek treatment from chiropractors and physiotherapists.

The study of more than 700 teachers and pre-school staff found that heavy- lifting of children and equipment, using child-height computers and whiteboards, and standing all day were also adding to teachers' pain.

Nearly 40 per cent of those taking part in the study had taken time off work because of work-related joint or back pain.

While one teacher said they were forced to lie on the floor during break time, others had gone part-time or started working with older children to relieve their symptoms.

But the study, carried out by physiotherapist Lorna Taylor and the Voice union for education, found that fewer than one in ten members of staff had reported their discomfort to their school or nursery.

One survey participant said: "We are made to feel that all the money should be spent on the children and not staff discomfort."

Another said: "Hidden problems are not seen as important."

Nearly 40 per cent of respondents said they didn't complain because they feared jeopardising their careers.

Ms Taylor, who says a teacher will spend an average of 20,000 hours sitting on furniture designed for children over a 30-year career, said she had seen staff who were reluctant to report their problems despite looking "grey with pain".

She said: "There's an attitude that it's part of the job; they accept back pain and take painkillers to keep going.

"It's taboo to complain. People don't want to be seen as wingeing or letting their team down."

She also criticised classrooms built under the Building Schools for the Future programme, which failed to address the problem.

"I don't know who's been planning these classrooms, but no one's thought about this issue properly.

"I've had staff telling me that the sinks have been made adjustable so you can raise them up, but then there is not enough water pressure to get the taps to work.

"Teachers first need to let their headteachers know about their problem because, ultimately, it's the head and governing body who are responsible. But this issue really needs considering properly at a national level."

Philip Parkin, general secretary of Voice, said: "It's very concerning that so few people are reporting their workplace-induced injuries and pain. It's particularly alarming that some fear to do so.

"If these were people working in county hall or any office, these issues would be taken seriously or not happen in the first place.

"Primary and early-years settings are naturally designed for children, but more thought needs to go into the needs of the adults who work there, too.

"I urge those working in education and early years to let someone know - their headteacher or manager, GP, health and safety representative or union."

He added that every workplace was legally obliged to have a reporting system, such as an incident book to record injuries.

Sean McDougall, acting chief executive of the national charity BackCare (CORR), said: "This survey shines a light on an issue that is blighting the lives of thousands of teachers and reducing their ability to offer our children the best possible start in life.

"If this survey is representative of the 20,000 primary schools in the UK, then, potentially, four out of five teachers are suffering from work- related muscular-skeletal disorders."


HELP YOURSELF - Avoiding injury

- Get regular advice on safe lifting techniques.

- Transport heavy paperwork on a wheeled trolley.

- Have a supply of staff backpacks for use on school trips.

- Take time to adjust workstations, take regular breaks and rest if aching.

- Try using a high stool instead of standing for long periods.

- Use a specially designed chair or floor cushion for low sitting.

- Use a height adjustable table.

Source: Lorna Taylor. Further information: www.jollyback.com


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