'Back' To The Drawing Board

Actress and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai receives a kiss from presenter Coolio at the MOBO Awards 2006, held at London's Royal Albert Hall on Sept. 20, 2006.
A new study finds one of the most common tools for preventing back injuries, the industrial back belt, does not work, reports CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin.

Back pain is the leading cause of disability in the American workplace, and employers spend billions treating it and trying to prevent it. The new data on back belts, along with other new research into on-the-job injuries, may change how employers approach back safety.

For the study, scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) followed more than 9,000 Wal-Mart employees in 30 states for six months.

Based on interviews and worker-compensation claims, the researchers wrote in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association that they concluded, "Back belt use is not associated with reduced incidence of back injury claims or low back pain in material handlers."

An increasing number of employers use back belts to try to prevent back injuries, which cost the nation an estimated $20 billion to $50 billion a year, according to NIOSH. The researchers noted that about 4 million back belts were purchased in 1995 alone to try to prevent back injuries.

The snug belts are purported to help strengthen muscles that support the spine, though little research has been done on them.

A study published in 1996 on back belt use at Home Depot stores in California suggested that the belts reduced the incidence of back injuries.

But NIOSH statistician Douglas Landsittel, a co-author of the JAMA study, said the previous study focused only on California stores.

There is no company-wide policy on belt use at Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer. Some stores require belts for certain employees involved in heavy lifting, such as those in shipping and receiving, said Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams.

Williams said Wal-Mart is studying the findings and will use them to improve work conditions.

The researchers interviewed 9,377 employees at 160 Wal-Mart stores and collected workers' compensation data between 1996 and 1998. The study included 89 stores that required back belts. Those used were made of stretchable nylon, adjusted with Velcro straps.

About two-thirds of the workers in stores with mandatory belt use reported wearing them daily, compared with about one-third of those at stores where use was voluntary.

There were 195 workers' compensation claims filed for back injury during the study, and of 6,311 employees who completed follow-up interviews, there were 1,088 reports of frequent back pain.

Employees who wore the belts regularly were just as likely to report back pain or file claims as those who didn't wear them.

Williams said Wal-Mart is studying the findings and will use them to improve work conditions.

The findings were questioned by an official with the International Mass Retail Association, an indstry group whose members include 200 retail chains, including Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The researchers did not directly compare workers doing the same jobs, said Morrison Cain, the group's senior vice president of government affairs.

"I don't believe this establishes conclusively one way or the other whether back belts work," Cain said.

However, other new research suggests that the causes of back pain on the job are varied, including both physical factors and psychological ones.

At Ohio State University, researchers are monitoring the spines of volunteers lifting boxes under various degrees of simulated workplace stress.

In half of the cases, results show that people unhappy on the job, not getting support or getting lots of criticism are more prone to injury.

"Under stress conditions, they recruited muscles a lot differently — in other words they used the muscles in the torso very differently and the end result of this is it created higher forces in the spine," said Ohio State University's William Marris.

That finding, coupled with the news that back belts aren't working, suggests to experts that employers need a whole new strategy for preventing back pain: one that picks up on both the physical and emotional well being of the work force.