While it seems the topic of back belts does not come up as often as it used to, the question still comes up: “What’s your opinion of back belts? Do they work?” The short answer is no. There is no evidence that back belts reduce back injury or back pain associated with repeated lifting, pushing, pulling, twisting, or bending. In spite of what some employees, employers, and surprisingly, some safety professionals still believe, there is no credible evidence to support the claim that back belts help reduce back injuries.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) formed a Back Belt Working Group in 1992 to review the scientific literature available at that time, and published the Workplace Use of Back Belts in 1994. This review found that “…the effectiveness of using back belts to lessen the risk of back injury among uninjured workers remains unproven.” Ironically, NIOSH reported that almost 4 million back belts were purchased in 1995, the year after the first study.

From April 1996 to April 1998, in the largest study ever conducted, NIOSH once again found no evidence to support that back belts reduce injuries. The findings, published in the December 6, 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), were consistent with the 1994 study.

Back Belt FAQs

Don’t back belts reduce forces on the spine?

The back belt is similar to a corset that places pressure on the abdominal area – that’s all it does. The study conducted by NIOSH found no evidence that this has any effect on the forces on the spine. Developing strong abdominal muscles has been shown to reduce stress on the spine; wearing a back belt cannot take the place of good physical conditioning.

Isn’t it true that companies that have implemented back belt programs have had a significant reduction in back injuries? 

While it is true that certain companies have had success in reducing back injuries, it is important to note that these companies also had comprehensive back injury prevention programs in place, including implementing engineering controls such as lift tables and hoists for palletizing jobs. The NIOSH study, based on the evidence presented, states that the efficacy of back belt use remains unproven if used as the sole intervention in back injury prevention.

Even though there is no evidence that back belts help reduce back injuries, isn’t it true that they remind the wearer to lift correctly?

Not necessarily. There is no evidence that employees wearing back belts use proper lifting techniques. The use of “proper” lifting techniques is not the most effective back injury prevention tool available. It is more important to ask the questions: “Why are employees lifting?” and “Can we eliminate the need to lift?” Material handling equipment and process redesign are the two most effective tools in reducing or eliminating the need to lift. A comprehensive back injury prevention program will help identify the solutions appropriate for your company.

A full copy of the JAMA study is available here. Additional NIOSH research and publications on back belts can be found here.