Context: Despite scientific uncertainties about effectiveness, wearing back belts in the hopes of preventing costly and disabling low back injury in employees is becoming common in the workplace.
Objective: To evaluate the effectiveness of using back belts in reducing back injury claims and low back pain.
Design and setting: Prospective cohort study. From April 1996 through April 1998, we identified material-handling employees in 160 new retail merchandise stores (89 required back belt use; 71 had voluntary back belt use) in 30 states (from New Hampshire to Michigan in the north and from Florida to Texas in the south); data collection ended December 1998, median follow-up was 6(1/2) months.
Participants: A referred sample of 13,873 material handling employees provided 9377 baseline interviews and 6311 (67%) follow-up interviews; 206 (1.4%) refused baseline interview.
Main outcome measures: Incidence rate of material-handling back injury workers' compensation claims and 6-month incidence rate of self-reported low back pain.
Results: Neither frequent back belt use nor a belt-requirement store policy was significantly associated with back injury claim rates or self-reported back pain. Rate ratios comparing back injury claims of those who reported wearing back belts usually every day and once or twice a week vs those who reported wearing belts never or once or twice a month were 1.22 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.87-1.70) and 0.95 (95% CI, 0.56-1.59), respectively. The respective odds ratios for low back pain incidence were 0.97 (95% CI, 0.83-1.13) and 0.92 (95% CI, 0.73-1.16).
Conclusions: In the largest prospective cohort study of back belt use, adjusted for multiple individual risk factors, neither frequent back belt use nor a store policy that required belt use was associated with reduced incidence of back injury claims or low back pain. JAMA. 2000;284:2727-2732.