Don't Brace Yourself to Prevent Back Injuries

Factory worker stacking boxes

During my tenure as a physical therapist, I would get asked about using back braces or back belts for injury prevention. I would tell my patients there was little to no evidence to support those claims and would discuss other alternatives that were more beneficial. As a MEMIC Safety Management Consultant, I am getting asked the same questions by employers who want to protect their employees from lifting hazards.

There are several considerations with back brace use and below are some, but not all, of the issues I have encountered.

  • Incorrect sizing – Come in varying sizes to accommodate different body types. Like other PPE, correct sizing is needed to function properly.
  • Worn at inappropriate times – Should be tightened right before a task is started. A lot of times, the brace hangs loose during a task or stays tightened throughout a shift.
  • Worn incorrectly – Should be worn lower on the lumbar spine and hips. This positioning limits the forward trunk bending that causes stress on the lower back. Most times, the back brace is worn too high around the abdomen and cannot provide its intended support.
  • Falling apart – Should be inspected on a regular basis for signs of wear and tear.
  • Inflated capabilities – Can give a false sense of ability and safety which results in the wearer attempting to lift heavier loads that put them at risk for injury.

Okay, so you addressed the concerns above, but what does the research say? The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which makes recommendations for the prevention of work-related injuries and illnesses, has completed a systematic review of the literature. In their published article, “BACK BELTS - Do They Prevent Injury?”, it was found “there is currently inadequate scientific evidence or theory to suggest that back belts can reduce the risk of injury.” So, perhaps, back belts are not the answer you are looking for.

Alright, you decided not to use back braces. What can you do to help reduce injuries now?

An ergonomics program to evaluate job tasks should be considered.  Ergonomics attempts to fit the workspace around the employee and would be an engineering control when looking at the Hierarchy of Controls. Engineering controls are more effective at reducing injury risk because they keep an employee away from the hazard source. PPE such as back braces are the last line of defense because the hazard can still reach the employee.

Ergonomic Program Considerations

  • How can the load be positioned between knee and shoulder height, also known as the “power zone”?
  • Can the load be broken into smaller, more manageable weights?
  • How can the load be kept as close to the body as possible?
  • Can the person lifting the load achieve a solid base of support?
  • Can the distance the load needs to be carried be shortened?
  • Can twisting motions be eliminated?
  • Are appropriate mechanical lifting devices or equipment available to reduce manual handling?

What are some options when looking to implement an ergonomics program?

  • MEMIC policyholders:
    • Contact your designated MEMIC Safety Management Consultant.
    • MEMIC has an ergonomics team that can complete an E-Ergo assessment and provide recommendations by reviewing pictures and video. Log onto MEMIC Safety Director and click on “Ergonomics” tab for the E-Ergo service dashboard.
  • Not yet a MEMIC policyholder:
    • Contact your broker and ask if MEMIC is a good fit for you and your business.

Remember, back braces are considered the least effective method of controlling a hazard when looking at the hierarchy of controls, with no evidence that they prevent workplace injuries. Look to develop an ergonomics program that will help your team safely work smarter…not harder!