Do back belts reduce the risk of a workplace back injury?


Written by Terry Wong

 

As a society we are often seduced by a potential quick fix. In preventing back injuries there is no more trusty favourite “quick fix” than the back belt.

Move 4 Life first wrote about the use of back belts in the workplace in 2006. While we are pleased that our opinion has stood the test of time, it’s a shame the misuse of back belts continues to cause injuries at work.

Here is our update of the evidence and our opinion on the place of back belts at work.

What does the research say?

Over the last 20 years many research organisations have reviewed studies into the effectiveness of back belts. Typical are the recommendations made by The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (1996):

“… because of limitations of the studies that have analysed workplace use of back belts, the results cannot be used to either support or refute the effectiveness of back belts in injury reduction.”

A major study into the prevention of low back pain published in February 2016 found evidence that “back belts do not reduce the risk of low back pain episodes or sick leave”.

Worksafe Victoria has a detailed written guideline on it’s position on back belts titled “Back belts are not effective in reducing back injuries”. It’s a simple one-pager worth a look.

Despite all this information, back belts are everywhere and the common understanding of the everyday employee is that they help.

Why don’t they work?

Whilst they may be useful in limited circumstances, our view is that overall they are not a good option. He’s why:

  1. They can provide a false sense of security; meaning people lift more than they are capable of and put themselves at risk.
  2. They focus people on a low order control option, instead of looking at ways to eliminate or reduce the risk.
  3. They make the muscles that support your back lazy.

Practical tips

Here are some tips on how to deal with back belts in the workplace:

1. Look harder for other options to reduce the risk of back injuries.

  • Ordering a back belt online and handing it over to an employee is a quick option … but this is a big enough problem to warrant more attention.
  • Approach it from a risk management perspective. Encourage people to look for ways to work smarter, not harder.
  • Look at the quality of movement (especially when it comes to the degree of back bending) employees are using when performing some high risk or repetitive tasks.
  • Run an education campaign focussed solely on eliminating back pain. We ran one with a customer recently with great success.

2. Are they all bad, in all situations?back belt 02 500x500

  • No. In some cases they can be helpful; especially in the early stages of repair from an acute injury. The goal however is always to wean yourself off it pretty quickly.
  • If you are going to use one, try getting one with an over-the-shoulder harness so it is easier to adjust on and off.

3. What if someone uses one at work?

Approach with caution. Quoting research and talking down back belts is problematic. Perhaps present the information tactfully and have them make a decision that takes into account their situation.

4. Consider MOVE Training

Of course, MOVE Training will help people move with less strain on their body and therefore reduce the long-term cause of back injury. No need for a back belt if you’re moving with little ache, strain and pain!


About the Author

Terry Wong

Terry Wong

Terry Wong is General Manager of Move 4 Life, the benchmark in preventing sprain and strain injuries and future-proofing an ageing workforce. Move 4 Life helps companies send employees home to their families safely each day.

A Physiotherapist by-trade, Terry has spent the last 14 years in workplace rehabilitation, occupational health, injury-prevention and training. He has held a position as Chair of the Occupational Health Group of the Australian Physiotherapy Association and is widely published on these subjects.

You can find Terry’s LinkedIn profile here.

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