Do Back Belts Prevent Injury?
Back injuries account for nearly 20 percent of all injuries and illnesses in the workplace. In response to the increasing human and economic costs of back injury, companies are trying a number of preventive approaches. One of these is the use of the industrial back belt, typically a lightweight, elastic belt worn around the lower back, sometimes held in place with suspenders.
Because of the growing use of back belts among workers such as grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, and baggage handlers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied whether or not the belts actually protect backs. After a review of the published peer-reviewed scientific literature, NIOSH determined that there is not enough evidence to support the concept that back belts prevent injury. NIOSH concluded that back belts do not:
- Reduce internal forces on the spine during forceful exertions of the back
- Increase intra-abdominal pressure, which may counter the forces on the spine
- Stiffen the spine, which may decrease forces on the spine
- Restrict bending motions
- Remind the wearer to lift properly
- Reduce injuries in certain workplaces
Even if back belts did produce the biomechanical effects listed above, there is no proven link to injury prevention. “There is also concern that the belts may harm workers by giving them a false sense of security and encourage them to lift more weight than they normally would,” explains M. W., M.D. Dr. W is the medical director of OccNet, the occupational health service of the Health Alliance. Rather than relying on back belts, some companies have a comprehensive ergonomics program that strives to protect all workers. This type of program stresses that the most effective way to prevent back injury is to redesign the work environment and work tasks to reduce the hazards of lifting. Says Dr. W, “A first step would be to evaluate jobs that require frequent lifting, twisting, bending, pushing, or pulling.” Redesign these tasks so that the load is close to the body, the load is between shoulder and knuckle height, twisted lifts are eliminated, gravity moves the load when possible, and equipment is used to move heavy loads. Weight should be reduced to the lowest feasible level, NIOSH advises.
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