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My heavy lifting days are over

Sound engineering is often a heavy lifting business. But be careful - one mistake could stay with you the rest of your life...

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To be a sound engineer, or even a gigging musician, often involves lifting heavy objects such as loudspeakers and flight cases. To a young healthy male, this is often seen as a challenge, and a competition. Anyone not seen to be taking more than their fair share of heavy lifting receives the scorn of their fellows. And young healthy females often join in so they can be seen to be sharing the burden fairly.

But there is a problem here - actually two problems. Firstly, human beings have evolved through millions of years to stand upright. But we haven't really quite got the hang of it yet and back pain due simply to years of bad posture is common. Add heavy lifting to that and there is the likelihood of wear and tear over a period of years exceeding what the body is capable of coping with.

Then there is the 'short, sharp, shock' - that moment of over-exertion where something in the spine suddenly gives. It feels like a knife being stuck in your back and, even if nothing is damaged, the pain can take weeks to subside.

The photograph shows a Marshall guitar amplifier that weighs 35 kg (77 pounds). Sure you can lift it, but unless you are an Olympic weightlifter, you had better use good lifting technique, otherwise you are going to hurt yourself. In fact even if you are an Olympic weightlifter, good technique is essential.

Good lifting technique consists of simply squatting all the way down, placing your center of gravity above the load, and lifting using the legs, not the back. Keep the back straight and do not hunch over the load.

But there is another aspect to good lifting technique - and that is to prepare the load so that it is easy to lift. Flight cases are a good example. It's easy to buy a flight case to put all your stuff in, but it will be pretty heavy when full. And in all likelihood it will only have two handles, therefore it is a one person lift. But to fit more handles is an easy job, with a drill and a pop riveter - it takes about 30 seconds per handle. So this particular flight case becomes a two-person lift. Easy. As a rule, flight cases should be fitted with handles for the number of people that can fit around the case. So a case for a heavy mixing consoles could have twelve handles for six people. You can do the same with loudspeaker cabinets, although being wood they require different fitting techniques.

My personal experience is of working in theater, lifting and carrying many loudspeaker cabinets. Although I never had the 'short, sharp, shock' experience during my theater days, I found the stress eventually working its way to my hip joints. Even today, many years later, I am careful to carry even moderately heavy loads centrally, so as not to stress either hip unduly.

But my 'short. sharp, shock' did come. I was moving house, and sensibly I had packed my stuff in small boxes - dozens of them. So I got into a rhythm of throwing them into the van. And then I came to a crate of LP records, not much bigger than my boxes. But it was a lot heavier. I picked it up, not using the correct technique, and I received the knife in the spine. That knife stayed at the ready for two weeks, punishing me again and again for the slightest exertion. After nearly four weeks, I feel almost normal again. I didn't damage anything, but that most definitely is the end of my heavy lifting career.

Sound engineering always will involve lifting, but with sensible design of cases and cabinets, there is no reason why anyone should have to suffer the pain of back injury.

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By David Mellor Thursday January 1, 2004
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