Back Pain - Musculoskeletal disorders

By the very nature of the job, there are many dangers associated with the profession of a lineman. And working on utility poles at great heights in unsavoury weather conditions is just one of them.

Musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) is a health condition that many linemen suffer from as climbing poles can take a toll on a lineman’s knees. Lower back pain is also common from carting around heavy equipment during work shifts. Twisting of the body is often required to make sure linemen do not come into contact with electrical overhead lines and other equipment, and this action places a strain on different parts of the body.

The World Health Organization defines musculoskeletal conditions as being typically characterised by pain and limitations in mobility, dexterity and functional ability. The most common and disabling musculoskeletal conditions are osteoarthritis, back and neck pain, fractures associated with bone fragility, injuries and systemic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Shockingly, MSDs have been found in over 50% of experienced linemen in the US, with the majority of them suffering from accumulative musculoskeletal injury — aches, pains and soreness in different parts of the body.

Conditions include:

  • Joints: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, gout, ankylosing spondylitis
  • Bones: osteoporosis, osteopenia and associated fragility fractures, traumatic fractures
  • Muscles: sarcopenia
  • Spine: back and neck pain
  • Multiple body areas or systems: regional and widespread pain disorders and inflammatory diseases such as connective tissue diseases and vasculitis that have musculoskeletal manifestations

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has given evidence for work-related MSDs. Examples of work conditions that may lead to MSD, including routine lifting of heavy objects, daily exposure to whole body vibration, overhead work, work with the neck in chronic flexion position or performing repetitive forceful tasks. All these factors are part of a lineman’s job, making them more prone to MSDs than most other Americans.

According to CDC, musculoskeletal disorders are associated with high costs to employers such as absenteeism, lost productivity, and increased healthcare, disability and worker’s compensation costs.

Below, we have provided some tips for linemen to avoid or at least reduce the chance of musculoskeletal disorders:

How linemen can prevent muscular skeletal disorders

  • Stretching – If you wonder why athletes do stretches before an event, the answer is simple. It prevents muscle stiffness and sore joints. You can do stretches before heading off to work or at different times of the day. Studies have shown stretching brings down chances of injury on the job, with some figures even showing a decrease of 30%. Stretching is particularly important during cold weather. As a lineman, your body may have to bend into almost impossible angles and stretching helps in flexibility by warming up muscles, ligaments and tendons. Stiffness can lead to accidents.
  • Safety gear – An essential part of the job and also important tools in preventing MSDs. While working high off the ground, wear a wide belt or brace which will give the lower back some much-needed support. Equipment like skirts surround an area where a hold is to be drilled to put up an utility pole. While digging, the dirt lands on the skirt. A crane or derrick then pulls the skirt upwards and dumps the dirt it contains where it needs to go. The big benefit is linemen would not have to move the dirt themselves, which would place major stress on the back muscles.
  • Cordless tools – The use of cordless tools is being adopted by many utility companies for the benefit of linemen. These are usually lightweight and are gradually replacing corded and heavy equipment. They have been manufactured keeping ergonomics in mind, which puts less of a strain on a lineman’s body.
  • Wellness in the workplace – According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, programs in safety, ergonomics, wellness and disability management have proved to be effective in preventing joint pain and preserving joint health, a key issue for linemen.
  • Protection from falls – Body belts, harnesses, straps should be inspected regularly and make sure they follow OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1910 guidelines. Be sure to note fall protection equipment rigged to arrest falls is known as a fall arrest system. On the other hand, fall protection equipment rigged for work positioning becomes work-positioning equipment. It should be stressed both would have different safety guidelines that need to be followed to prevent any long-term MSDs.
  • Training – Safety briefings are key for linemen and should never be missed. Younger workers can benefit from the experience of veterans and it is advised seniors lead the meetings. They would know the ins and outs of MSDs and are well-placed to advise on what steps should be taken to stay fit and healthy on the job. With MSDs now high on the agenda of utility companies, new rules and regulations are often issued so attending meetings without fail makes sure you are up to date.


Stay healthy and safe!