dock worker looking over cargo containersLoading and unloading bulky maritime cargo puts a lot of stress and strain on workers’ backs. Even when injury prevention measures are taken, years of this kind of labor can take its toll on a longshoreman’s spine, discs, and back muscles. Dock workers are covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA) for medical treatment and lost wages, and they also might have cause to sue for damages if their injury was caused by the negligence of some third party (non-employer) and, under certain circumstances, even the employer can be held liable in a few specific types of cases in what is called liability of the employer in “its dual capacity” as the vessel owner and the employer.  This is very technical maritime law, and you need to speak to a maritime law specialist, such as Hofmann & Schweitzer, to determine what rights you have in addition to receiving ‘no-fault workers’ compensation benefits.

Longshore Tasks That Can Cause Back Injuries

Dock workers play a crucial role in the shipping and logistics industry, but their jobs can be physically demanding and pose risks to their back health. Common tasks performed by dock workers that could potentially lead to back injuries include the following:

Loading and Unloading Cargo

Dock workers are responsible for moving heavy cargo on and off ships, trucks, and storage areas. Lifting and carrying heavy loads without proper techniques can strain the lower back muscles and spinal discs, leading to back injuries.

Operating Forklifts and Cranes

Operating heavy machinery like forklifts and cranes requires frequent twisting, bending, and lifting, which can place strain on the back if done improperly or without ergonomically designed equipment.

Stacking and Restacking Cargo

Organizing cargo in stacks or containers can involve repetitive bending and lifting. Improper body mechanics while handling cargo can lead to back strain or sprains.

Securing Cargo With Straps and Chains

Tying down cargo using straps, chains, and ropes often requires workers to bend, twist, and exert force. Poor lifting techniques or awkward positions can contribute to back injuries.

Repositioning Shipping Containers

Moving shipping containers or adjusting their positions can involve heavy lifting and awkward postures, increasing the risk of back injuries if proper techniques are not followed.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Routine cleaning and maintenance tasks on the dock, such as sweeping, scrubbing, or repairing equipment, can require repetitive bending and twisting, potentially straining the back if performed without proper form.

Long Hours of Standing

Dock workers often spend long hours on their feet, which can lead to fatigue and discomfort in the lower back, especially if they do not have access to ergonomic workstations or breaks.

Typical Work-Related Back Injuries Among Dock Workers

Work-related back injuries are prevalent among dock workers and can range in severity from minor discomfort to debilitating conditions. These injuries can have significant impacts on an individual's quality of life and ability to work. Common work-related back injuries include the following:

Muscle Strains

Muscle strains in the back are common and often result from overexertion, heavy lifting, or sudden movements. While they can be painful, most strains are not severe and can be treated with rest and physical therapy.

Sprained Ligaments

Sprains occur when ligaments (tissues that connect bones) are stretched or torn. Back ligament sprains can vary in severity, with mild cases causing temporary discomfort and more severe cases leading to chronic pain or instability.

Herniated Discs

A herniated disc occurs when the soft inner core of a spinal disc protrudes through the outer layer, pressing on nearby nerves. This can cause severe back pain and may lead to nerve-related symptoms like sciatica. Herniated discs can be quite serious and may require surgery in some cases.

Spinal Stenosis

This condition involves the narrowing of the spinal canal, which can compress the spinal cord or nerves. Spinal stenosis can cause chronic pain, numbness, and muscle weakness. Its seriousness depends on the extent of narrowing and symptoms.


Spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebra slips forward over the one below it. This condition can cause back pain and may lead to nerve compression. The severity depends on the degree of slippage and symptoms.

Compression Fractures

Compression fractures typically affect the vertebrae in the lower back and are often caused by osteoporosis or trauma. While not always severe, they can lead to chronic pain and a loss of height.


Sciatica is a condition characterized by pain that radiates along the sciatic nerve, typically down one leg. It can result from herniated discs or other spinal issues and can be quite painful and debilitating.

Degenerative Disc Disease

This is a chronic condition where spinal discs break down over time, leading to chronic pain, reduced mobility, and potentially serious complications.

The severity of work-related back injuries depends on factors like the type and location of the injury, the individual's overall health, and the timeliness of medical treatment. Prompt medical attention, appropriate rehabilitation, and workplace accommodations can help mitigate the long-term impact of these injuries. Back injuries are often cumulative, which can make it challenging to qualify for workers’ comp under the LHWCA.

Paul T. Hofmann
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Focused on personal injury, with an emphasis on maritime, railroad and construction worker tort claims.