Study Finds

Tattoo Artists Face Serious Risk Of Neck, Back Injuries, Study Finds

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Many industries expose their workers to chronic neck and back pain because of the posture, stress or repetition required to perform their jobs. Some of the more obvious examples are construction and factory workers, taxi drivers, and dentists.

But don’t forget tattoo artists.

A new study finds tattoo artists have a significant risk of chronic neck and back pain because of the hunched-over position they spend countless hours enduring.

A new study finds “tattooists,” as they are sometimes known, are especially vulnerable to chronic injury because they spend long hours practicing their craft in body-crippling positions without ergonomic seating support or other safeguards.

In the first study of its kind, two researchers at Ohio State University contacted ten central Ohio tattoo artists and obtained permission to hook them up to electrodes to measure their muscle exertions while they were working

Their finding?  All ten exceeded the maximum level recommended to avoid injury, especially in their upper back and neck muscles.

Dana Keester, who co-directed the study, says the findings came as no surprise.  Tattoo artists typically work on low, hard stools and must lean over their clients while craning their necks to closely observe the body art they’re creating, she noted. She points to Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “Tattoo Artist,” as a perfect depiction, adding that they often remain in that position for as long as eight hours at a time with few breaks.

It’s a virtual setup for chronic neck and back injury.

Keester and her colleague Carolyn Sommerich found that the trapezius muscles— those that connect the shoulder blades to either side of the neck — are especially vulnerable to injury.  Some of the artists they tested — for just three hours, not eight — exceeded recommended limits by as much as 25 percent, putting them at unusually high risk of injury.

It doesn’t help that the tattoo industry, which grossed $2.3 billion in 2012, is almost completely unregulated.  Nearly all practitioners work in small boutique shops as independent contractors.  Many don’t have basic health insurance, let alone compensation for lost employment and income due to workplace injury.

Moreover, unlike dentists and dental hygienists who can suffer similar injuries, no national organization exists to set basic ergonomic guidelines in the tattoo industry.

The need for such guidelines is growing.  A 2016 Harris poll found that a third of Americans already have a tattoo – usually more than one.  And the industry is booming – revenues grew by13% last year, according to a recent IBISWorld report.

The Ohio State study was sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH (a division of the Centers for Disease Control) which has previously warned that body art workers, including tattoo artists and “piercers,” may be vulnerable to contracting HIV and other viruses through exposure to their clients’ blood.

With any luck, the latest study at Ohio State might encourage NIOSH to broaden the scope of recommended federal workplace protection guidelines for tattoo artists and other body art workers.

The team’s findings were published in the journal Applied Ergonomics.

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