Have you ever had a back injury? From pulled muscles to pinched nerves and beyond, back injuries are painful. Occupational back injuries are very common, and according to the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), they account for about 20 % of all occupational injuries, costing somewhere around $20 Billion dollars or more to employers annually. This type of injury is common in all types of industries and work places. You can injure your back lifting a case of paper for the office copier, working in a refinery, or swinging a hammer on a construction site.
So how do we prevent back injuries? Some people believe that back belts are helpful. In fact, in the 1990’s there was an increase in the use of back belts, as some believed it supported the lower back and provided a reminder to the wearer to use good lifting techniques. However, these ideas might be a myth.
NIOSH was asked whether back belts were actually beneficial. So they started to look into them. From their webpage on the topic, linked to the right, here’s what they discovered: “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.”
More specifically, NIOSH discovered that
- 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.
NIOSH is not the only one that does not subscribe to the idea that back belts are helpful. OSHA responded to an inquiry on the subject, issuing an Interpretive Letter on Back Belts (linked to the right). Here is an excerpt: “Back belts are not recognized by OSHA as effective engineering controls to prevent back injury. While they may be accepted by individual workers because they feel as if they provide additional support, the effectiveness of back belts in the prevention of low back injuries has not been proven in the work environment.”
Rather than rely on a product that may not help, and might actually give a false sense of security, increasing the potential for injury, we recommend implementing the following controls to reduce injuries in the work place.
1. Eliminate or reduce the level of hazard. If you don’t have to lift something, you won’t hurt your back. Returning to the previous example of lifting a case of paper – don’t store heavy cases of paper on the floor. Store them at a more easily accessed height. Or remove the reams of paper from the case, storing on shelves. Similarly, don’t place objects where someone would have to twist and reach awkwardly for them.
2. Substitution of lesser hazards. If there is a lighter product that can be used in place or a heavier one, use that instead.
3. Engineering Controls. Make use of more ergonomically correct work stations. Use forklifts or mechanical devices for lifting. You may have other ideas that can be inserted here.
4. Administrative Controls. Provide work rules for safe lifting. Use posters as reminders in the work place.
5. Training. Provide instruction on safe lifting techniques. See the OSHA training guide, linked to the right for suggestions.
6. PPE. Remember that PPE is the least effective in the hierarchy of controls. NIOSH and OSHA do not recommend the use of a back belt in safe lifting.
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