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Back Belts: Do They Work?

Back injuries, which account for nearly 20% of all injuries and illnesses in the workplace, are some of the costliest to an organization. According to the National Safety Council, the average cost of a back injury is nearly $40,000. In response, some organizations have implemented the use of back belts.

However, research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) indicates that back belts do not reduce back injuries, and organizations should take other measures to reduce back injuries in their facilities.

What Are Back Belts?

Back belts (also called back supports or abdominal belts) were originally used in medical rehabilitation therapy. The industrial back belt has become popular for workers in grocery stores, warehouses, airline baggage handling areas and many other industries. Although many types of belts are available, the most common style is a lightweight, elastic belt worn around the lower back, sometimes held in place with suspenders.

Back Belts and Injury Prevention

In theory, a back belt achieves the following benefits:

  • 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

Although some companies have claimed a reduction in back injuries through the use of back belts, it is likely that training and ergonomic awareness programs that were implemented at the same time had a greater effect than the belts. The Back Belt Working Group, formed by NIOSH, reviewed and evaluated existing data related to back belts and had the following concerns:

  • Back belts may produce some strain on the cardiovascular system
  • Back belts limit mobility and may reduce the suppleness and elasticity of muscles and tendons, potentially contributing to back injury
  • Back belts may create a false sense of security, increasing the risk of lifting excessive loads

With these concerns in mind, the group recommends that back belts should not be considered personal protective equipment (PPE), and back belts should not be recommended for use in occupational situations.

In addition to the Back Belt Working Group, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and NIOSH have systematically reviewed scientific studies on the use of back belts. In their research, they found no evidence that back belts reduce injury or back pain for workers who lift or move merchandise.

Methods for Back Injury Reduction

The most effective way to prevent back injuries is to implement a comprehensive ergonomics program that focuses on redesigning the work environment and work tasks to reduce the hazards of lifting. This program should also include training designed to help workers use safe lifting techniques and identify lifting hazards.

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