Low back injuries are some of the most common and costly injuries in the workplace today. Is using industrial back belts to prevent low back injuries a good idea? That’s what we’re about to explore together in this installment of our Truth vs Myth series.
Do you want to prevent low back injuries in your workplace?
Do you get tired of receiving the news of low back injuries occurring at your facility?
In this installment of our Truth vs. Myth series, we’ll be exploring the use of industrial back belts in the workplace to prevent common and costly low back injuries.
The idea behind using back belts to prevent low back injuries
Back injuries account for 20% of all workplace injuries, costing the nation roughly $20-50 billion per year. It’s the single largest category of injury. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC)
Given this data, it makes sense that safety leaders and companies everywhere are desperately searching for answers. And you don’t have to search too far before you find claims of an easy way to prevent low back discomfort, pain and injuries — industrial back belts.
According to the CCOHS:
“Back belts, also called “back supports” or “abdominal belts” were originally used in medical rehabilitation therapy. Leather belts have also been used by athletes during weight lifting. Recently, the “industrial back belt” has become popular. While there are many types of belts on the market, the most common style is of a lightweight, elastic belt worn around the lower back which is sometimes held in place with suspenders.”
The supposed benefits of using back belts are:
- Reduce internal forces on the spine during forceful exertions of the back
- Increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), which may counter the forces on the spine
- Stiffen the spine, which may decrease forces on the spine
- Restrict bending motions (range of motion)
- Remind the wearer to lift properly
Is there any scientific evidence that supports these claims?
Let’s take a look.
A look at the scientific evidence
According to the CDC website, “As [the use of back belts] has risen, NIOSH has increasingly been asked for advice on back belt selection. In response to these inquiries, the Institute decided to address a more fundamental question. Rather than ask “Which belt will best protect workers?” NIOSH researchers began with the question–“Do back belts protect workers?”
NIOSH reviewed all of the published peer-reviewed scientific literature available on industrial back belts. There were few studies done on the association between workplace use of back belts and injuries, so NIOSH also included studies of the relationship between back belt use and forces exerted on the spine during manual lifting.
(Note: Because the Institute’s primary focus is on the prevention of injury, NIOSH did not address the use of back belts as medical treatment during rehabilitation from injury.)
The conclusion of the NIOSH review of scientific evidence: “Because of limitations of the studies that have analyzed workplace use of back belts, the results cannot be used to either support or refute the effectiveness of back belts in injury reduction … The Institute, therefore, does not recommend the use of back belts among workers who have never been injured.”
In other words, more studies need to be done before we’ll have a conclusive answer.
I realize this is a frustrating conclusion if you’re looking for answers to the low back injuries in your workplace right now.
Fortunately for you, we can help with that. Let’s talk about low back injury prevention.
How to prevent low back injuries
Back belts might seem like a quick fix for your low back injury problem. But I assure you, it’s not the silver bullet solution you might be hoping it is.
Back belts don’t reduce problems with the work environment (ergonomic risk factors). For example, a job with a Lifting Index of 3 (high risk) isn’t fixed by simply having a worker put on a back belt.
And back belts don’t reduce problems with the workers themselves (individual risk factors). For example, a worker who uses improper body mechanics isn’t fixed by simply having them put on a back belt.
The bottom line is this: If you’re putting all your prevention resources into back belts, you are not adequately protecting your workers. The best way to prevent low back injuries is to identify and reduce all contributing risk factors.
Focus your efforts on removing problems in your work environment with an ergonomics process, training your workplace athletes on how to work smarter, and responding to early reports of fatigue and discomfort as soon as possible so you can get to the root of the problem.
If your workforce decides to adopt or continue using back belts …
If your workers decide to continue using back belts, NIOSH offers the following points for you to keep in mind:
- There is a lack of scientific evidence that back belts work.
- Workers wearing back belts may attempt to lift more weight than they would have without a belt. A false sense of security may subject workers to greater risk of injury.
- Workers and employers should redesign the work environment and work tasks to reduce lifting hazards, rather than rely solely on back belts to prevent injury (In other words, institute a comprehensive ergonomics and MSD prevention process).
- The research needed to adequately assess back belt effectiveness will take several years to complete. In the interim, workers should not assume that back belts are protective.
Additional research and articles on back belts
For more information, tips and resources on back belts in the workplace, check out the links below:
- CCOHS – Back Belt Information and Recommendations
- CDC – Back Belts: Do they prevent injury?
- No Evidence That Back Belts Reduce Injury Seen in Landmark Study of Retail Users
- A Prospective Study of Back Belts for Prevention of Back Pain and Injury
- Ergonomics: Back Belts and Supports
- Industrial Back Belts and Low Back Pain Frequently Asked Questions
Free ergonomics and MSD prevention training course
If you’re interested in more information on preventing low back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), make sure you get signed up for our free course, MSD Prevention 101.
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