Like a lightbulb moment

The hazards of low height working with young children.

By By Lorna Taylor, physiotherapist

Lorna Taylor is a physiotherapist and founder of Jolly Back 

Whilst delivering a recent “How musculoskeletal health investment benefits wellbeing and quality of teaching” workshop for a staff inset day, I was genuinely enlightened by the comment “like a lightbulb moment” as the hazards of low height working with young children were explained in terms of risks and back, joint and muscle health, and the connection was made to the aches and pains felt in the classroom, especially noticeable after the holidays.  

It was a great lesson for me in never assuming the obvious and made me realise many primary teachers and early years educators do not know why they experience back ache, shoulder pain, sciatica or hip stiffness and how they are related to their day-to-day work.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define hazards as “anything which can cause harm” and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) as “any injury or disorder of the joints or other tissues in the upper/lower limbs or the back”.

Activities which create a risk (with teaching-specific examples) include:

  1. Bending and twisting repeating an action to frequently (eg bending over low tables, helping with snack time at low tables).
  2. Uncomfortable working position (eg. sitting on children’s chair’s, computer work with screen below eye level).
  3. Repetitive heavy lifting (eg. playground and PE equipment and children).
  4. Not receiving and acting upon request of symptoms (eg. reporting system not in place for cumulative strain – injury which comes on over time and usually starts as “just niggles”).
  5. Phycological factors (eg. high job demands, time pressures and lack of control – teaching per se!).
  6. Working too long without a break (eg. working through breaks, lengthy meetings, unsupportive leadership culture).

There are several pieces of UK legislation relating to MSDs (which attach responsibilities to both employers and employees) all of which ensure “all workers have the right to work in places where risks to their health and safety are properly controlled”.

There still seem to be such incredibly alarming and all-too-prevalent practices in schools which are directly having a negative impact on employees’ (and volunteers’) health, wellbeing and safety. These, in turn, will have a negative impact on children’s learning and experiences.

Some examples of difficult situations I’ve helped with.

  • A 32 year old primary teacher (5ft 9” working in KS1) had received steroid injections over the previous 9 months for back pain and was on a waiting list for back surgery. She remained at work doing the best she could and made contact on the recommendation of her physio. Her school (MAT employer) advised she could find her own chair as she reported her pain was exacerbated by sitting so low down on children’s chairs. I’m pleased to say; the school did purchase the recommended chair with bespoke options and are considering a sit-stand desk (which I agree should also be provided). Back surgery has been successful, and the teacher is looking forward to returning to work.

Sadly, this situation is not in isolation and I have spoken to many primary teachers in their 30s and 40s who have required back surgery. In addition, we have helped with other upsetting cases where older members of staff are not sure how they can continue to keep working to retirement age because of their musculoskeletal pains caused through low height working and yet, financially, they need to do so.

Further information

If you are experiencing joint discomfort, back ache or tingling in you arms and legs, it’s your body’s way of letting you know that you need to take action.  If it’s worse at work or when you return to school after the holidays, the discomfort is most likely related to your low height working environment.

I have put together a comprehensive Low Height Working Assessment Toolkit for all early years providers and primary schools. It’s evidence based and has been created to be as simple as possible to help you and others (heads, business managers, H&S managers, premise managers, governors and nursery owners) identify hazards and risks, to effectively make improvements or give confidence in your measures already in place. Best of all, it’s free!

If you’d like a copy of the Toolkit (which includes Guidance Notes for Employers, Low Height Working Employee Questionnaire, Self-Evaluation and Action Plan) please request one via email  or the Jolly Back website.

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