Objectives: The aim was to review the literature with regard to the effectiveness of intervention programmes for the prevention of aggravation of back disorders or prolonged duration of sickness absence.
Methods: A systematic search of the literature was performed using three groups of key words and inclusion/exclusion criteria. Effectiveness was evaluated using two measures: the difference between intervention and referent groups in return to work, and the fraction of sickness absence among referent groups that could be prevented if these referents had undergone the same intervention (preventable fraction).
Results: Twelve articles with quantitative information on the effect of ergonomic interventions on return to work were included. In eight studies, introduction of a back-school programme was the preferred intervention, combining exercise and functional conditioning, and training in working methods and lifting techniques. In seven out of eight back-school studies, return to work was significantly better in the intervention group. Intervention after 60 days, in the subacute phase of back pain, showed the most promising results. In these studies the preventable fraction varied between -11% and 80%, largely depending on the stage and phase of back disorders and the time of follow-up. The success of intervention also depended on the profile of the referents when left untampered. In all studies compliance during the intervention was fairly good, but there was a lack of information on sustainability of the intervention during the follow-up and on recurrence of back complaints and consequent sickness absence.
Conclusions: Few studies were performed to assess the outcome return to work after ergonomic intervention. However, there is evidence that intervention in the subacute phase of back pain is preferable. Future intervention studies should address intervention sustainability and recurrence of sickness absence due to back pain over at least a 1-year follow-up period.