In the largest study of its kind ever conducted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found no evidence that back belts reduce back injury or back pain for retail workers who lift or move merchandise, according to results published in the December 6, 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)

The study, conducted over a two-year period, found no statistically significant difference between the incidence rate of workers' compensation claims for job-related back injuries among employees who reported using back belts usually every day, and the incidence rate of such claims among employees who reported never using back belts or using them no more than once or twice a month.

Similarly, no statistically significant difference was found in comparing the incidence of self-reported back pain among workers who reported using back belts every day, with the incidence among workers who reported never using back belts or using them no more than once or twice a month. Neither did the study find a statistically significant difference between the rate of back injury claims among employees in stores that required the use of back belts, and the rate of such claims in stores where back belt use was voluntary.

Back belts, also called back supports or abdominal belts resemble corsets. In recent years, they have been widely used in numerous industries to prevent worker injury during lifting. There are more than 70 types of industrial back belts, including the lightweight, stretchable nylon style used by workers in this study. Approximately four million back belts were purchased for workplace use in 1995, the most recent year for which data were available.

The results of the new study are consistent with NIOSH's previous finding, reported in 1994, that there is insufficient scientific evidence that wearing back belts protects workers from the risk of job-related back injury.

"Work-related musculoskeletal disorders cost the economy an estimated $13 billion every year, and a substantial proportion of these are back injuries," said CDC Director Jeffrey P. Koplan, M.D., M.P.H. "By taking action to reduce exposures, employers can go a long way toward keeping workers safe and reducing the costs of work-related back injury."

This study was the largest prospective study ever conducted on use of back belts. From April 1996 to April 1998, NIOSH interviewed 9,377 employees at 160 newly opened stores owned by a national retail chain. The employees were identified by store management as involved in materials handling tasks (lifting or moving merchandise). Through interviews, data was gathered on detailed information on workers' back-belt wearing habits, work history, lifestyle habits, job activities, demographic characteristics, and job satisfaction.  The study also examined workers' compensation claims for back injuries among employees at the stores over the two-year period.

In a prospective study, researchers identify a cohort or group of workers for evaluation, and then collect current information on that group as the study progresses. In this study, NIOSH determined workers' habits in wearing back belts in advance of any injuries, and collected data as workers filed back injury claims.

Findings from this study included:

"We appreciate the partnership offered by workers and management in helping us conduct this important study," said NIOSH Acting Director Lawrence J. Fine, M.D., D.P.H. "We look forward to working closely with industry and labor to disseminate our findings as widely as possible."

Back injuries account for nearly 20% of all injuries and illnesses in the workplace and cost the nation an estimated 20 to 50 billion dollars per year. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) believes that the most effective way to prevent back injury is to implement an ergonomics program that focuses on redesigning the work environment and work tasks to reduce the hazards of lifting.

Rather than relying on back belts, organizations should begin to implement a comprehensive ergonomics program that strives to protect all workers. The most effective way to prevent back injury is to redesign the work environment and work tasks to reduce the hazards of lifting. Training in identifying lifting hazards and using safe lifting techniques and methods should improve program effectiveness.

NIOSH believes that the decision to use back belts should be a voluntary decision by both employers and employees. The decision to wear a back belt is a personal choice; however, NIOSH believes that workers and employers should have the best available information to make that decision.  Back belt use should not be a mandatory job requirement. If your workforce continues to wear back belts, you should remember the following points: