A weblog dedicated to Ergonomics education, dicussion and debate. This emerging field has the power to transform industry, business and the lives of ordinary people for the better. The Industrial Athlete intends to encourage and document our profession's vision of an ergonomically-friendly future!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sunday Spotlight: The Back Belt

This edition of the Sunday Spotlight is not meant to highlight the attributes of a ergonomics process or device, but to dissuade people from the use of a product that is falsely promoted as being ergonomic. The back belt, first used by weightlifters to "protect" them from injury by "supporting" the muscles of their back. As time went by, those who believed in the effectiveness of back belts extrapolated this theory into workplace situations where work objects were lifted. If back belts "helped" weightlifters, then certainly they would protect the worker from harm in the conduction of their tasks.

Well, do they?

* According to a literature review in the journal Spine in 2001, "... because the randomized trials concerning lumbar supports (i.e. back belts) were consistently negative, there is strong evidence that they are not effective in prevention". (Source: Spine 26(7):778-787, April 1, 2001)

* While far less condemning than the article cited above, a study in the journal Work published in 2003 states that " ... the effectiveness of back belts to prevent back pain and injury remains inconclusive". (Source: Work 20 (3): 257-266, 2003)

* Moreover, even if back belts pose a specific benefit to workers at large, their promotion provides an easy out to those who would acquire them in order to pay lip service to ergonomics and OH&S. An article in The Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation in 1994 states while they left the option of prescribing back belts open to individual practitioners of occupational medicine, they still attached a disclaimer that said that " ... these devices should not be provided as an alternative to appropriate administrative and/or engineering controls". (Source: Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 4(3): 125-139, September 1994)

In my opinion, the last comment is the most relevant to the debate over the use of back belts as an ergonomic intervention. It is akin to Wile E. Coyote holding up a mini-umbrella to shield him from the coming onslaught of a falling boulder. Wouldn't it make sense for him to step out of the way of the falling boulder, instead of trying in vain to shield himself from overwhelming forces that will hurt him no matter what? It is the same situation with back belts, a useless umbrella employed to deflect the overwhelming forces that are placed on the lower back by overly excessive weights or by continual back bending. It makes more sense to give that person a mechanical assist, or to redesign the workspace so that they do not have to expose themselves to dangerous postures, than to strap a pitiful piece of leather around a person's waist and expect that to protect them from the faults of a poorly designed job.


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