Bend it, shape it, anyway you want it...and you could end up with a bad back - a complaint that costs the country 119 million lost working days every year.
But the right bag could help. Sheila Purcell and a TES panel investigate.
You wouldn't heave a sack of potatoes around your school, day in, day out. Yet many teachers carry the equivalent and more, in work bags groaning at the seams. Textbooks, files, class projects, perhaps a pair of trainers and a mobile phone: it adds up to a load which can easily push the scales way above the 14lb mark. That could spell serious trouble in years to come for teachers who are ignorant about the right way to carry weights, warns Paul Savage, a physiotherapist with a specific interest in spinal pain.
"People need educating about the importance of maintaining a healthy back," he says. "Injury caused by poor posture is accumulative and it causes tremendous problems."
Back pain, the most common complaint in doctors' surgeries, has escalated alarmingly. In 1996-97 it was responsible for 119 million lost working days. It costs industry an annual pound;5 billion and drains the NHS budget by pound;480 million.
Just how many of these lost days are caused by carrying bags and other heavy loads incorrectly is impossible to quantify. But both Paul Savage and the National Back Pain Association's Norma Montague agree that the key to avoiding long-term injury is to nip bad habits in the bud.
Many of our daily actions - such as carrying an overloaded bag on one shoulder, or bending down to lift something heavy off the floor - can build up over time to cause major problems.
"If you regularly carry a heavy weight, the worst thing is holding it on one side because it pulls the spine sideways," says Paul. So how can overloaded teachers shift a mountain of work around their school safely, efficiently and without hurting their backs?
Norma Montague believes teachers should ask their local education authority for guidance and instruction on the safe way to carry heavy loads. At some schools - such as Priestlands in Hampshire - health and safety in-service training programmes are already in place.
However, here, as anywhere, good advice tends to go by the board when the pressure is on, as Ian Black, a technology teacher at the school, points out: "If you have a classroom full of waiting children and you need something right away, you just go and get it."
The school's head of art, Mark Drury, is fit, active and health-aware. But at 29 he has already seen a chiropractor about his aching back. He thinks that constantly bending over pupils' work, as well as sport, could be to blame. And if he needs something like a sack of clay, he may not always follow safety guidelines to the letter.
Mark and Ian joined osteopath Martin Budd on a TES consumer panel to check out a cross-section of widely-used bags. They awarded marks (see panel right) for practicality, portability, appearance, value for money and safety.
* The National Back Pain Association 16 Elmtree Road, Teddington, Middlesex TW11 8ST. Tel: 0181 977 5474. Send pound;2.50 for an information pack on avoiding and dealing with back pain. This includes a list of safe stretching and strengthening exercises. Your GP can recommend a chartered physiotherapist if you need one, alternatively contact the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, 14 Bedford Row, London WC1R 4ED. Tel: 0171 242 1941. Contact the British Osteopathic Association, 8-10 Boston Place, London NW1. Tel: 0171 262 5250 for a list of registered osteopaths.
LOADS OF ROOM
* BLACK VINYL PILOT CASE - 210
pound;39. Weighs 6lb3kg. Looks extra-wide briefcase. Special features: rigid frame, locks, two side pockets with Velcro fasteners, two inside document holders. Holds around 30 exercise books, two or three textbooks, teaching notes, with room for more. Available from John Lewis stores and luggage shops.
The panel thought that this was "not bad value. It's ideal for keeping your books neat and dry and has plenty of space. The locks are the best feature." However, they did not fancy having to carry it "for more than a short distance. All the weight is on one side and you'd probably bruise your legs and other people's." They also thought it was very old-fashioned. The osteopath went further "This is lethal. Far too big and heavy. It has to be carrried on one side - and because it is so wide, you have to hold it away from you which increases the strain on the shoulder. I haveone myself but I only carry it a few feet from my consulting room to the car."
* ADIDAS NYLON SPORTS HOLDALL - 310
pound;16.99. Weighs 2lb1kg. Looks standard sports bag. Special features: two deep side pockets, top pocket with Velcro fastener, linked zip for easy opening, padded handle grip, shoulder strap. Holds any number of books, sports gear, teaching materials, flask and sandwiches. Available at JJB chain stores.
The panel thought this was pretty good value and hard wearing, although they thought you were paying through the nose for the name. "The side pockets are useful for keeping things separate but you need to put things into carrier bags to keep them separate inside." They also felt that as it was so large, the temptation would be to fill it up and then carry it slung over one shoulder. Martin Budd said: "This is ideal for carrying sports or swimming kit a very short distance. But the trouble with bags this big is that they have to be picked up and whether you use the handles or put it over your shoulder, it's a one-sided weight."
* INTREPID RUCKSACK 1010
pound;20 (pictured). Weighs 2lbs1kg. Looks yellow and black polyester, compact backpack. Special features: ergonomically designed to distribute weight evenly above the waist. Padded shoulder straps and back, chest strap and padded hip belt with quick release buckles,compression straps to reduce volume, unzips all the way round, two side pockets, top handle. Holds average set of class books, plus two or three textbooks, lunch, flask, and extras in pockets. Available at Millets Camping and Countrywear shops.
The panel's favourite by a mile. The teachers loved it because "it looks modern and sporty" and felt that the colour would be a good safety feature for those who cycle to school. They felt it was a good size that protected your back, and yet it couldn't be overloaded. "It's not too bulky and it leaves your hands free." They also liked the way it could be opened flat on a desk. Their final seal of approval was that they would even use it out of school. Martin Budd agreed it was a winner. "The straps are well padded and very wide, so the weight-bearing is spread evenly. The back is also well padded, so there is no pressure on the spine from objects inside. Chest and waist straps keep the load stable and it's not fiddly to wear. I can't find any fault, as long as people use both shoulder straps."
* HEAD (DESIGNER LABEL) BACKPACK - 710
pound;14.95. Weighs 1lb.5kg. Looks funky rucksack in lime. green and black vinyl. Special features: padded shoulder straps, two side pockets, padded top carry handle. Holds around 30 exercise books, three textbooks, a pair of trainers. Room for a sandwich and drink in the side pockets. Available at specialist luggage and sports shops.
The teachers thought that "this is the one you'd pick if you couldn't have the other rucksack". They found it roomy but not too heavy when full and they liked the top handle. "Not bad value at all." On the downside, they didn't like the thin padding in the back and shoulder straps. The designer label also counted against it - "teachers tend to shy away from them because children are so conscious of them." The osteopath felt it "fulfilled the basic weight-bearing requirements and the straps are quite wide so the load is spread. Some back padding." But he didn't like the fact that there was no way of securing the bag to the chest, and no cross straps to prevent it moving off the shoulder.
* PLASTIC CARRIER BAGS - 510
Free. Weighs zero. Looks depends on where you shop. Special features: the ultimate in portability. They pack flat or you could carry one in your pocket until you need it.
Available any time, any place.
Teachers liked these because they didn't cost anything. "Very convenient and practical," they enthused. They also liked the way that carrying two plastic bags meant that you balanced your load. "A lot of teachers use them," they said. But like anyone who has relied on one they pointed out that the handles could break "at the most inconvenient moment" and they're not very durable. Martin Budd was surprisingly enthusiastic: "Cheap and cheerful. The firm ones with wide handles are best. Quite a nice compromise as long as you choose your bag for comfort and use two to balance the load." His one warning was that thin handles will cut into your fingers and that the bags are not designed to carry anything very heavy.
MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A BACK FOR THE FUTURE
distribute weight in a balanced way, without putting strain on any part of the body. Ideally this means using an ergonomically designed rucksack which rests the load at your waist above your hips. Failing that, divide the load and carry it in two equal loads, or carry it close to the front of your body, using both arms.
* Lift correctly, keeping your back straight, bending your knees and using the strong thigh muscles to take the weight.
* Keep the load close to your body.
* Try to lift at waist height if the load is heavy.
* Lift anything too heavy.
* Bend or twist your back as you lift.
* Balance a load on one knee or under an arm to open a door.
* Bend over desks. Sit down or kneel instead.