TASB Risk Management Fund

Back Belts Are Not a Real Solution

June 30, 2011 Charles Hueter

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Over the years, we have received several Loss Prevention Grant requests asking for money to purchase back support belts. The typical justification for these belts is that they help prevent back injuries among employees who move significant loads as part of their normal duties. However, we do not approve grant funding for these belts because TASB Risk Management Risk Solutions does not advocate using them. 

It generally makes more sense to fix the source of a problem rather than spend time, effort, and resources trying to reduce the impact of the troubles caused by the problem. The same logic applies to back belts. If a school employee’s job exposes him or her to heavy, repetitive, or awkward lifting, the problem is not that the employee’s back cannot handle the load, but instead the nature of the duty or the work environment. If kitchen staff members have hurt their backs lifting thirty-pound boxes of food from the loading dock and carrying them to the freezer, buying back belts for them only attempts to address the problem’s symptoms. The employee is still repeatedly exposed to the task that caused the injury. Of course, this assumes back belts work as intended and, as you will see below, there is no evidence to support that belief.

Real solutions would aim for a zero-lift work environment so workers are not exposed to the hazard in the first place. Make safe lifting procedures a regular part of your meetings; even five minutes can make a difference to someone who may have missed a full training session. 

Educate your staff on proper lifting techniques:

  • Bend at the knees when reaching down for an object
  • Lift with the legs; do not lift by straightening your back
  • Avoid twisting your body while carrying the load
  • Keep the load in the safest zone centered close to your torso
  • Always get help or use a cart or dolly if the load is too much for one person

Reorganize your shelf storage so the heaviest items to move are in the safe lifting zone (the area from your shoulders to your waist) at mid-height, the lightest things are at the top, and the least-used things are at the bottom. Purchase utility carts and direct the staff to transfer rather than lift the boxes onto the carts so they do not have to lift and/or walk with a heavy load. Change the nature of the work and the work environment so your people have to lift as little as possible.

Make safe lifting procedures a regular part of your meetings; even five minutes can make a difference to someone who may have missed a full training session.

While some may think a zero-lift work environment is a nice goal, many think that wearing a back belt will protect the back more effectively than not wearing one. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to support that assumption. After looking over peer-reviewed papers studying back belt usage, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concluded in 1996 that these belts do not reduce back injuries on the job. A more recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed NIOSH’s conclusion and found that neither a policy requiring the use of back belts nor their regular usage helped reduce reported pain or injuries. At best, they should be prescribed by a doctor in very specific situations.

TASB Risk Management Services wants Fund members to prevent back injuries that can cripple employees and send claims costs skyrocketing. Back belts sidestep the real sources of these injuries, which are minimal training and procedures, as well as work conditions that nudge employees toward hazardous behavior. Preventing back injuries cannot happen unless these problems are addressed head-on.

For more information on workplace safety, please contact your Risk Solutions consultant.

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