In response to the increasing number of workers relying on back belts to prevent injury during lifting, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) decided to evaluate the evidence of their effectiveness. After an extensive review of the scientific literature completed in 1994, NIOSH concluded at that time that insufficient evidence existed to prove the effectiveness of back belts in preventing back injuries related to manual handling job tasks. An epidemiological study published in 1996 (Kraus et al., Reduction of Acute Lower Back Injuries by Use of Back Supports, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 2:264-273) credits mandatory use of back belts in a chain of large retail hardware stores with substantially reducing the rate of low back injuries. Although NIOSH believes this study provides limited evidence that back belts may be effective in some settings for preventing back injuries, NIOSH still believes that evidence for the effectiveness of back belts is inconclusive. This area is being researched, and the questions about the effectiveness of back belts remain open.
NIOSH believes that well-designed studies to assess the potential benefits and disadvantages of using back belts are still needed. Because of design flaws, the limited studies that have analyzed workplace use of back belts cannot be used to either support or refute the effectiveness of back belts in injury reduction. Moreover, many of the earlier studies did not evaluate the type of industrial back belt most widely in use today. Also, because workers think they are protected, they may attempt to lift even more with a back belt than they would have without it, subjecting them to even greater risk. If employers or workers are currently relying on back belts as protective equipment against back injury, NIOSH believes they should be aware of the questions about their effectiveness.
Rather than relying solely on back belts, the Institute recommends that employers and workers minimize their risk of back injury by developing and implementing a comprehensive ergonomics program. A program of this nature would focus on prevention and:
Additional information is available in two NIOSH Publications: Workplace Use of Backbelts, Review and Recommendations (DHHS [NIOSH] Publication No. 94-122) and Back Belts - Do They Prevent Injury?(DHHS [NIOSH] Publication No. 94-127). Copies are available free-of-charge from the NIOSH Publications Office while supplies last: