In the largest study of its kind ever conducted, the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention’s (CDC)’s 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 today in the Journal
of the American Medical Association (JAMA) December 6, 2000 issue.
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:
- There was no statistically significant difference between the rates of back
injuries among workers who wore back belts every day (3.38 cases per 100 full time
equivalent workers or FTEs) and back injury rates among workers who never wore
back belts or wore them no more than once or twice a month (2.76 cases per 100
- There was no statistically significant difference between the incidence of
self-reported back pain among workers who wore back belts usually every day (17.1
percent) and the incidence of self-reported back pain among workers who never wore
back belts or wore them no more than once or twice a month (17.5 percent).
- There was no statistically significant difference between the rate of back
injury claims in stores requiring the use of back belts (2.98 cases per every 100
FTEs) and the rate in stores where back belt use was voluntary (3.08 cases per 100
- A history of back injury was the strongest risk factor for predicting either a
back-injury claim or reported back pain among employees, regardless of back-belt
use. The rate of back injury among those with a previous history of back pain
(5.14 cases per 100 FTEs) nearly twice as high as the rate among workers without a
previous history of back pain (2.68 per 100 FTEs).
- Even for employees in the most strenuous types of jobs, comparisons of back
injury claims and self-reported back pain failed to show any differences in rates
or incidence associated with back belt use.