Back Injuries can be costly and no evidence that back belts help

[tweetmeme]Back injuries can be extremely painful and long-lasting.  OSHA reports that “Back strain due to overexertion represents one of the largest segments of employee injuries in the American workplace.  Only the common cold accounts for more lost days of work.”  The National Safety Council has stated that overexertion is the cause of about 31% of all disabling work injuries, and the American Physical Therapy Association has indicated that back pain is the most common cause of loss of activity among adults under 45 and that more than 80% of workers suffer back pain at some time during their careers.

An unconditioned back can result in back pain. This usually occurs when someone who normally doesn’t use their back at work for physical labor becomes a “weekend warrior” and takes on a home project that requires a lot of lifting or other back strain.  This person will suffer pain because their unconditioned back is not used to the strain they placed on it

Tips to reduce the likelihood of back injuries:

  • Never lift heavy objects alone. Use a two-person approach, with one person directing the lift.
  • Move together, keeping the load level, and unload at the same time.
  • Do not attempt to readjust your grip or catch a falling load.  This sudden movement will likely result in some type of injury.
  • Always maintain good back posture.  Think about your back when standing, sitting, laying down, walking, working, etc.
  • Long objects, such as lumber, piping, or long boxes, should be carried over the shoulder, being careful the ends don’t hit persons or objects.
  • Bags and sacks should be lifted by grasping opposite ends and propelling your body upwards with your legs.  Let the load rest on your hip or your shoulder.
  • Use mechanical aids such as a forklift, dollie, or hand cart, when necessary

The use of back belts to reduce back injuries however has been a topic of repeated debate.  While many studies have concluded that back belts can help support the back and remind the wearer to maintain correct back posture, there are also drawbacks of regular back belt use.  Back belts are often not fitted and worn correctly, which means they are not providing the intended benefits.  A worker who relies on the support of a back belt may actually lose strength in the muscles that support the back because they are not used as much.  This can result in workers being injured when he/she stops wearing the back belt. 

Furthermore, many ergonomists feel that wearers of back support belts mistakenly are lead to believe that they can lift heavier loads when wearing the belt—the “Superman Syndrome”.  Several researchers have concluded that prolonged use of the belts actually cause dependency and reduction in the abdominal muscle strength and/or endurance.  Consequently, there is reason to believe that this dependency may actually increase the chances of back injury when the belt is not worn.  A few researchers have also indicated that the increased intra-abdominal pressure caused by using the belt can lead to increased systolic blood pressure impeding blood flow to the heart.

According to NIOSH Publication No. 94-127, “after a review of the scientific literature” NIOSH has concluded that, 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.  Although back belts are being bought and sold under the premise that they reduce the risk of back injury, there is insufficient scientific evidence that they actually deliver what is promised.

NIOSH, therefore, does not recommend the use of back belts to prevent injuries among workers who have never been injured.  If you or your workers are wearing back belts as protective equipment against back injury, you should be aware of the lack of scientific evidence supporting their use.

University of California-Davis safety bulletin #29 for Supervisors suggests the following if your employee insists on wearing a back belt:

  • Evaluate the work area and method to see if changes can be made to reduce loads to the back.
  • Provide employees training in back injury prevention.
  • Have the employee discuss medical reasons for needing a back belt, with their occupational physician

If you decide to wear a back belt at work or at home, it is very important that you understand that:

  • You should always consult your health care provider before wearing a back belt if you are receiving medical care for back symptoms.
  • There is evidence of adverse health effects from wearing a tight back belt for prolonged periods.  Tighten the belt only for short periods.
  • Long-term use of a back belt may increase your risk of back injury when you stop wearing the belt.
  • You should always continue to use safe lifting techniques while wearing a back belt.  
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