Back problems account for about 20% of all workplace injuries and cost somewhere between $20 and $50 billion every year. There’s no question, then, that something must be done to offer workers greater support and mitigate the risk of injuries to the back, particularly the lower back.
This is where ergonomic gear like back support belts come into play. But when are they appropriate? How do you ensure the right fit? And what do you need to know before using one? That’s what we’re going to discuss in this article.
What Are Back Support Belts?
Back support belts for workers, also known as back supports or abdominal belts, are modeled after the belts weight lifters use to increase spine and core stability when lifting heavy loads. These belts are typically lightweight and made of elastic materials. They’re worn around the lower back and usually held in place with suspenders.
During lifting, back belts are supposed to stiffen and reduce the forces on the spine, increase intra-abdominal pressure, and reduce loads. Theoretically, they’re also supposed to remind workers to avoid awkward postures and reduce bending motions, with the end goal of reducing back injuries in the workplace.
When to Use Back Support Belts
OSHA does not mandate the use of support belts, nor does it discourage them. However, OSHA notes some workers may use them because they feel more supported while doing heavy lifting and carrying. And in this sense, the belts can be helpful towards preventing back injuries and reminding workers to use good lifting technique.
(Learn more in Safe Lifting: Don't Put Your Back on the Line.)
Support belts are ideal, of course, for workers who spend a good deal of their shift doing heavy physical work, bending and twisting, or working in awkward positions. These include:
- Warehouse and dock workers
- Landscapers and gardeners
- Construction workers
- Nursing home workers
- Retail and grocery store checkout personnel
Things to Know About Using Support Belts
It’s critical to remember that back support belts offer support for workers lifting or carrying items – they aren’t a substitute for using proper lifting technique. Proper lifting technique includes the following steps:
- Position yourself close to and facing the object you are going to lift
- Bend at the knees (not the waist) and squat as low as you comfortably can
- While preparing to lift the object, tighten your stomach and keep your buttocks tucked in
- As you lift, be sure to engage your legs instead of your back muscles
- Keep the object close to your body as you lift it
- If it’s a heavy load, keep it no higher than your waist (you can lift a lighter load up to shoulder level, but no higher, and never lift a load over your head)
- While carrying a load, avoid twisting your upper body and instead move your entire body – shoulders, hips, and feet should all move together
Workers who use back support belts can experience a false sense of security, which can lead to them attempting to lift more than they should. Employers must stress the importance of workers evaluating a load and asking for assistance if it is necessary. Workers can be seriously injured when trying to handle loads beyond their physical capabilities – with or without a support belt.
People with cardiovascular disease are advised to avoid wearing back support belts. Studies have found that wearing these belts can increase intra-abdominal pressure, which can, in turn, place additional stress on the cardiovascular system.
Other Ways to Reduce Back Injuries
NIOSH stresses that the best way to prevent back injuries is to focus on reducing the hazards of lifting and carrying heavy items. To do this, employers should develop and implement an effective ergonomics program that redesigns the work environment and reduces the need for lifting and carrying loads.
One way to do this is to employ mechanical aids to help move heavier loads. These include:
- Rolling platforms when space is limited
- Hand trucks (dollies) for bulky loads
- Shelf trucks
- Platform trucks for heavy objects with irregular shapes
- Semi-live skids for temporary storage of work
- Pump trucks
- Forklifts for stacked materials
Workers can also make use of levers and rollers to move loads horizontally or change their direction.
Back support belts are intended to offer additional support to workers who must lift and carry heavy loads. Some organizations require them and others offer them as an option, but neither NIOSH nor OSHA mandates their use. In some instances, support belts can offer some added peace of mind to workers. However, they’re only helpful when paired with proper lifting technique.
So, to keep workers safe on the job, the first order of business should be to redesign the workplace to minimize the amount of lifting and carrying that has to be done. Second should be training on proper lifting and carrying technique. Once those are taken care of, you can give workers the opportunity to wear back support belts.