The purpose of this study was to determine risk factors for the occurrence of sickness absence due to low back pain (LBP) and to evaluate prognostic factors for return to work. A longitudinal study with 1-year follow-up was conducted among 853 shipyard workers. The cohort was drawn around January 2004 among employees in the shipyard industry. Baseline information was obtained by questionnaire on physical and psychosocial work load, need for recovery, perceived general health, musculoskeletal complaints, sickness absence, and health care use during the past year. During the 1-year follow-up for each subject medical certifications were retrieved for information on the frequency and duration of spells of sickness absence and associated diagnoses. Cox regression analyses were conducted on occurrence and on duration of sickness absence with hazard ratios (HR) with 95% confidence interval (95% CI) as measure of association. During the 1-year follow-up period, 14% of the population was on sick leave at least once with LBP while recurrence reached 41%. The main risk factors for sickness absence were previous absence due to a health problem other than LBP (HR 3.07; 95%CI 1.66-5.68) or previous sickness absence due to LBP (HR 6.52; 95%CI 3.16-13.46). Care seeking for LBP and lower educational level also hold significant influences (HR 2.41; 95%CI 1.45-4.01 and HR 2.46; 95%CI 1.19-5.07, respectively). Living with others, night shift and supervising duties were associated with less absenteeism due to LBP. Workers with a history of herniated disc had a significantly decreased rate of returning to work, whereas those who suffered from hand-wrist complaints and LBP returned to work faster. Prior sick leave due to LBP partly captured the effects of work-related physical and psychosocial factors on occurrence of sick leave. Our study showed that individual and job characteristics (living alone, night shift, lower education, sick leave, or care seeking during the last 12 months) influenced the decision to take sick leave due to LBP. An increased awareness of those frequently on sick leave and additional management after return to work may have a beneficial effect on the sickness absence pattern.