Back to Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain

Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from?  I’m sure there is a story behind that one.  Maybe even a lot of different origins.  I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.

I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back watching students returning from classes.  I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance.  Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.

In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story of how while four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around.  By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover was missing from the drain

So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant.  What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure.  However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five foot to the ground resulting in a broken hip.

This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else.  Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times.  Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.

Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.

The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety.  We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury.  Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life.  It only takes one time.  — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries.  Even with these, you will never be completely free from back  pain.

In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year.  A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years.  During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back.  Or you may hear a lumbar crack”.  — See.  I wish I could come up with doozies like that!  This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it.  Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack.  — I know… probably just a coincidence….

Lumbars don't really crack.  The discs indicated in blue become damaged

Lumbars don’t really crack. The discs indicated in blue become damaged

One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze.  When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain.  One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.

Sonny as he is today

Sonny Kendrick as he is today or… yesterday…

One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain.  — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”

The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe  — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck).  We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.

You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke).  The problem is more systemic than that.  This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.

The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back.  So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain.   The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong.  Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.

The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs.  So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs.  Not your Back”.  You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.

Ok.  I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right?  Yeah.  You are).  Bending both your knees and hips saves your back.  Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time?  — Yeah.  Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos.  — Oh.  It was implied, they just never came out and said it….  What they really mean to say is, “Squat”.  Yeah.  “Squat”.  When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”

Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?

The Squatty Potty Logo

The Squatty Potty Logo

Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?

See how happy you can be to Squat?

See how happy you can be to Squat?

To learn more, you can watch this video:

This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads.  So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.

Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself.  Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly.  A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.

Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far.  It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.

In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up.  He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up.  Not the easiest way.”

Doesn’t that sound like the same thing?  Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way?  Well.  You would think so, but it isn’t always the case.  This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement.  He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip.  It is one movement.  Bend at the hip.  — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object.  Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body.  He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.

In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.

A Back Support Belt

A Back Support Belt

Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt.  It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s.  Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them.  The warehouse team wore them a lot.   I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.

In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends.  I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt.  How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.”   I know.  I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.

There was a  question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea.  It  was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles.  So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long.  Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting.  I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other.  I haven’t heard what the latest jury has said on this subject.

Even  though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain.  I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.

I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back.  To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back.  — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region.  I think they meant an area just below the tailbone.  I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.

Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!

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3 responses

  1. I can remember getting into a taxi whilst in my late teens, turning in the seat to sling a bag in the back seat, only to pull something in my back. The pain lasted for ages.

    These days, it’s arthritis being the culprit. Back pain is as bad as everybody says it is.

    Good page 🙂

  2. Wasn’t the back alert pen given to someone in the garage to try out. Rumor is they didn’t like it because it kept going off all day every time they bent over.
    Hmmmmmm

    1. Yeah. I think you’re right.

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