To explore the spinal loads occurring in overhead working postures and to assess the value of ergonomic reduction of lumbar extension, spinal strain was measured by stature change in simulated motor vehicle maintenance tasks. A field study identified the typical extent of lumbar extension incurred in this type of work. In the laboratory eight male volunteers tightened and loosened bolts both overhead and at chest-height for 30min periods; records were made of lumbar posture, ground reaction force, and perceived exertion. Stature change was measured using a refined technique which permitted estimation of net effect of the work loads. The field study revealed that motor mechanics typically spent 8% of their time working overhead with up to 10° of lumbar extension. In the laboratory study, the overhead task entailed more lumbar extension and perceived exertion than did the chest-height task; ground reaction forces did not differ substantially between tasks. Only small changes in stature were observed at the end of the work period, and there was no significant difference between the tasks (means: overhead, + 0.61 mm; chest-height, − 0.23 mm: p = 0.31). Stature change was significantly correlated with lordosis for overhead work such that increased lordosis (compared with chest-height work) was associated with relative stature gain. No evidence was found to indicate a need for ergonomic intervention in overhead work tasks so far as spinal loading is concerned. The lack of substantial change in stature from tasks perceived to involve moderately high levels of exertion was unexpected; it would appear that some elements of dynamic work tasks may have a relative unloading effect, and that lordotic postures reduce load on the spinal discs.