The thing about laundry is that its never finished, so the possibility of injuring yourself while performing laundry duties is never ending. There are actually statistics about laundry injuries. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics report 496 washing machine-related injuries between 1993 and 2000, ranging from bruises to broken bones to even a drowning. These statistics lead to an increase in washing machine safety, including automatic shut off when the lid is lifted during rinse and spin cycles, but did not address the biomechanical disadvantages of doing laundry.
The laundry insult actually begins with the decision you make when purchasing a laundry basket. Baskets vary in size, shape, and the material of which they are constructed. In deciding on a basket, consider the shape. Round baskets are often hard to grasp and do not contour well to the body which moves the load being carried away for you and increases the stress to your back and shoulders. A rectangular or oval shaped basket is a better decision.
Next, be sure to purchase a basket with handles to easily and safely grasp the load. An easy grip is more efficient and requires less energy and strength for lifting and carrying. Laundry baskets with wheels exist too. But just as discussed in an earlier backpack article, the decision to purchase a basket with wheels is only a good idea in specific and limited situations. Carpets, stairs and too many twists and turns actually increase the strain on your back and shoulders. If wheels are an appropriate choice for your situation, push the basket, rather than pull it. It is less stress on your back and shoulders and, with increased control of the basket in pushing versus pulling, there is less of a chance the basket would tip over and pull you down with it or result in muscle strain in your back while reaching to catch the basket during tipping.
Wicker baskets are very lovely but also much heavier than their plastic counterparts. A heavier basket when empty means a heavier basket when it is filled with clothes. As discussed in previous articles, heavy loads, especially when bulky (like a Thanksgiving turkey!), increase the load to the muscles used to lift and carry and can result in strain. Choose a basket that is lightweight but sturdy. While you are at the store, pick up a few and compare the weight of them and make a decision which considers whether the basket easily contours to your body so that you can keep the load close to you.
Also put your hands in the handles and lift the basket. Try to find a basket which has handles that fit your arm length such that when you are holding the basket, your arms are in a position in which they can generate strength. Our muscles have a length tension ratio such that there is a position during the range of motion of the muscles at which it is the strongest; normally the midrange. As the muscle reaches either end range, whether it is fully flexed or fully lengthened, the amount of muscle force decreases. So your laundry basket should allow you to carry it in the middle ranges of elbow bend and with your elbows close to your body.
Now that you have your laundry basket home and have filled it with dirty clothes it is time to wash them. More often than not, homes are designed with the bedrooms and the laundry room on different levels of the house, requiring you to carry the laundry up or down the stairs. Biomechanically speaking, there are many things that can lead to injury with this set up. Try to hold your laundry in front of you and not rest it on your hip, except if you need a single hand to open a door or hold a handrail. Rotating the basket to rest on a single hip results in an uneven stress on the back muscles. Not only does this asymmetry lead to increased risk of injury, it only allows recruitment of some of your strong erector muscles of the back. Many of us require a handrail for balance, leaving us only one hand to carry the laundry and increasing the strain on the carrying arm and the muscles of the back and shoulders. Lessening the weight of each load or making several trips may be the best solution to this dilemma.
If you have difficulty going up stairs because of pain in your hips and knees, carrying the laundry up the steps may require you to perform the task in increments. Place the basket on a step which is approximately 6 steps up. You would then take 2-3 steps up and move the basket up as many steps as you just took. Remember wet clothes are much heavier than dry clothes and it is important to decrease the amount of clothes you place in the basket to carry them if wet.
If you are having difficulty with carrying, lifting and maneuvering your laundry, there is the backpack option. As we discussed in the back-to-school backpack basics, the pack should be fit so it rests in the small of your back, not any lower, and both straps should be used when carrying the pack. It allows both hands to use handrails on steps and allows the stronger back and hip muscles to perform a majority of the work, taking the stress off of the shoulders. Most people have less strength in their arms versus their legs and this disparity increases as we age. The back pack solution to getting your laundry to the washing machine can be the safest most efficient way to get the job done.
Top loaders were not designed for easy use. It is easy enough to toss the clothes in the top but it is quite challenging to get the heavier wet clothes out of the bottom when the cycle is completed. The only advice I can give to you is to take small handfuls out at a time. Do not try to lift the whole load at once. The dryer typically opens in the front. Be careful bending over to take the clothes out. Shift some of the load to the stronger hip muscles by bending your knees to complete at least a part of the motion to get your arms to the level of the opening.
There is not much to do about the configuration of the typical washer and dryer to make it a biomechanical advantage to you while performing laundry so the best we can do is to perform the motions with proper biomechanics. Move clothes from the washer to the dryer in smaller handfuls to make them lighter. Use your stronger hip and glute muscles instead of just bending over at the waist. Fold clothes on a flat surface that allows for secure footing and at a height that does not require bending or reaching. Additionally, instead of placing the laundry basket on the floor, place it on the dryer of folding table so you do not have to bend over to place the clothes in the basket or bend to lift the basket from the floor.
Just as laundry is never ending, so should your attention to how you perform the tasks associated with this necessary duty. Consider your biomechanics because your family is out there getting more clothes dirty for the next load!