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No Support in Study for Back Belts as Injury Preventers

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 5, 2000 -- Back-support belts may be more of a fashion statement than a workplace injury-prevention device, suggest researchers from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

A study of more than 9,000 materials-handling employees from Wal-Mart stores in 30 states found that back-injury disability claims and reports of back pain were about the same over a six-month period whether or not employees wore belts for heavy lifting. The findings are reported in the Dec. 6, 2000 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We found that there was no significant difference in two different outcomes: back pain and also back injury as measured by worker's comp claims," says co-author Douglas P. Landsittel, PhD, research statistician at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the CDC in Morgantown, W.Va.

They came to this conclusion by following materials handlers in 160 new or recently reopened Wal-Mart stores, 89 of which had a mandatory back-belt use policy, and 71 of which had a voluntary policy. They looked at back-injury workers' compensation claims and rates of self-reported low back pain.

People who were more likely to report back pain (but not make injury claims) included those who frequently lifted loads heavier than 20 pounds, women, former smokers, and those who reported poor job satisfaction. Current smokers were more likely than nonsmokers to file workers' compensation claims for back-related injuries.

"Results based on these multiple analyses of data all converge to a common conclusion: back-belt use is not associated with reduced incidence of back injury claims or low back pain in material handlers," the authors write.

Representatives of other giant retail chains have quite different perspectives, however. Chris Kibler, director of safety for the Atlanta-based Home Depot Corporation, tells WebMD, "we've been using them for several years, and we do have a mandatory policy that requires their use unless the employee has a medical condition that is documented [that would preclude the use of a belt], and we're planning on continuing with that policy,"

A spokeswoman for BJ's Wholesale Clubs, a chain of retail warehouse stores, tells WebMD that her company also requires that back-belts be used by all materials-handling employees, and that the devices are offered, along with training in proper lifting techniques, to other employees who want them.

Those corporate policies are backed by the results of a study conducted by Jess F. Kraus, MPH, PhD and colleagues at the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at UCLA. They had the good fortune to approach Home Depot about doing a study of back-injury just when the company had made an 180 degree switch from a corporate policy prohibiting back-belt use by employees to a policy requiring their use. Because the policy change happened one store at a time on different schedules, the researchers were able to do a before-and-after study of the effects of belt use on back injury.

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