It was mid-August. Our crew was pounding out plenty of overtime wrapping up a Lowe’s store, when suddenly I was flat on my back for about two weeks. When our ready-mix truck rolled up, a roll of wire mesh was in our way. How many countless rolls of mesh I’ve moved is impossible to say, but I’ll never forget that roll. While moving the mesh with another guy, I turned quickly when lifting it—a complete greenhorn mistake. It felt like lightning struck me. I couldn’t straighten up and I couldn’t take a full breath.

One-quarter of Americans have experienced back pain, spending more than $80 billion treating back pain annually. Of all of the occupations/trades, who do you think risks the greatest potential to experience back problems? Back injuries hammer us all, contractors and tradesmen alike. Between workers’ comp and time off, it’s time we eliminate senseless back pain when it’s in our control.

This is neither medical nor legal advice. I’m just a second generation, veteran finisher who has had his share of aches and pains doing what he loves. I’d like to share what a lifetime in concrete has taught me about protecting our backs. Here are several steps to take today to save your back for tomorrow.

  • Limbering up sounds like gym class, but a few stretches as soon as you get to the site goes a long way toward saving your breadmaker. Switch up standing straight on each leg, grabbing your other leg by the ankle and pull that leg toward your back pocket, and then lean forward onto something like your truck’s tailgate with your free hand. Or holding your tailgate with both hands, alternate stepping on your bumper while stretching your hind leg, keeping it on the ground. Simply locking your knees and reaching for your toes a few times helps too.
  • In our off-season we tend to add a few pounds, so shed your winter weight ASAP. If your stomach extends like a mezzanine over your belt buckle, expect some unhealthy stress on your lower back. Doing situps and strengthening your abs at home helps to reduce back pain, too.
  • Adjust and redistribute your daily load. If half of your tools are strapped around your waist, is it any wonder your back hurts? Wearing suspenders for nail aprons/tool belts keeps us from bowing out our backs.
  • Beyond lifting with your legs, don’t twist or turn either. When you are tempted to rotate your midsection, you’re better off shuffling your feet or taking sidesteps. Also, communicate while tag-teaming heavy objects together. This is true especially when lifting generators, wire mesh, or troweling machines.
  • Eliminate jerking motions. When stripping forms, especially with footers or curbs, never yank up quickly on boards that are stuck. The same goes for pulling stakes.
  • Finally, don’t ever sit on your wallet, especially when you are bouncing around on the skid-steer or spending several hours on a riding troweler. Even a thin wallet in our back pocket puts unhealthy pressure on the nerves in our lower back.

Accidents happen, but no one has your back like you do. “If I knew I would have lived this long, I would have taken better care of myself,” is a horrible way to go through life. Being careful, avoiding injuries, and taking steps to save your back for a healthier tomorrow is your responsibility today.

Craig Cottongim is certified in conflict resolution and is a long-time concrete finisher who is also a writer and communicator. E-mail