No Support in Study for Back Belts as Injury Preventers
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
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
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
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
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.