Healthbeat

Back belts don't replace the need to lift correctly

At a "big box" store or airport, you've probably seen workers wearing corset-like back belts. Once worn only by weight lifters, these belts are supposed to protect the back when lifting something. With back problems accounting for nearly 20% of all workplace injuries and costing anywhere from $20 billion to $50 billion a year, it's no surprise that some companies require their workers to use these belts.

But do they work? Several studies have cast some doubt on whether back belts (also called back supports or abdominal belts) help protect workers' backs or reduce sick time and workers' compensation claims. One report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that these belts didn't curtail back injuries. In this two-year study, which included several thousand employees who handled merchandise, the use of back belts didn't reduce either the incidence of low back pain or the number of back injury claims. Another study looked at two groups of people with work-related low back disorders: those in one group were asked to wear back belts and receive education on back health; those in the other group received the educational component only. There was no significant difference in the recovery of the two groups.

Although a few small studies have found back belts to be protective, the consensus is that they do not reduce back injuries. In fact, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has expressed concern that back belts may even cause back problems by giving workers a false sense of security. According to NIOSH, some workers think they can lift heavier items when wearing the belts.

NIOSH also points out that there is no scientific evidence to back up claims that these belts decrease the force exerted on the spine, that they remind wearers to lift properly, or that they reduce workplace injuries. As a result, the agency doesn't recommend that employers insist their workers use back belts to prevent back injuries.

Follow these basic steps whenever you need to lift something:

  • Face the object and position yourself close to it.
  • Bend at your knees, not your waist, and squat down as far as you comfortably can.
  • As you prepare to lift, tighten your stomach and keep your buttocks tucked in.
  • Lift with your legs, not your back muscles.
  • Don't try to lift the object too high — don't raise a heavy load higher than your waist; keep a light load below shoulder level.
  • Keep the object close to you as you lift it.
  • If you need to turn to set something down, don't twist your upper body. Instead, turn your entire body, moving your shoulders, hips, and feet at the same time.
  • Ask for help lifting anything that's too heavy.

For more on ways to heal your aching back, check out Low Back Pain by Harvard Medical School.