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Back Brace Study

  Oct. 16, 1996
LARGEST-EVER STUDY OF BACK SUPPORTS SHOWS THE DEVICES MAY REDUCE LOW-BACK INJURIES BY ONE-THIRD

Workers who wear back supports can reduce the number of low-back injuries by about one-third, according to findings from the largest-ever study of the increasingly popular -- yet unproven -- devices.

Researchers from the UCLA School of Public Health studied the workplace injury history of 36,000 workers of The Home Depot, a national home center chain, over a six-year period and found that low-back injuries fell by about one-third after the company imposed a consistent policy on back support use.

The study, scheduled to be published in the November edition of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, is the largest study thus far to examine the effectiveness of back supports. No funding from manufacturers of back supports was used for the research.

"We found compelling evidence that back supports can play an important role in helping to reduce back injuries among workers who do a lot of lifting," said Jess Kraus, an epidemiologist and director of the UCLA-based Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center. "Along with worker training and proper workplace ergonomic design, back supports can be part of an overall back injury prevention program."

More than one million workers suffer back injuries each year, accounting for one out of every five workplace injuries and illnesses. Moreover, back injuries account for one-fourth of all workers compensation claims, costing businesses billions of dollars each year.

Back supports have become standard issue for a variety of workers in the past several years, despite little scientific inquiry into whether the devices help prevent injuries.

Several smaller studies have found uncertain results about the effectiveness of back supports. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reviewed the scientific findings and issued a report in 1994 that concluded the benefit of the back supports remained unproven and did not recommend that they be used by uninjured workers.

The UCLA researchers examined the effectiveness of back supports by analyzing worker injury data collected by the home improvement retailer Home Depot on 36,000 people who worked at its 77 California stores from the start of 1989 to the end of 1994. The company imposed a consistent back support use policy that was phased in between 1990 and 1992.

Analyzing injury reports and other worker information, UCLA researchers found that Home Depot workers sustained about 31 back injuries per 1 million work hours without the supports, compared with about 20 injuries per 1 million work hours after a consistent back support use policy was imposed.

"I went into the study very skeptical about claims that these back supports could help reduce back injuries," Kraus said. "I suspected we would not find any positive effect, so I was very much surprised by our findings."

The benefits of using the back supports were seen in men and women workers, in young and older workers, and among workers engaged in low and high levels of lifting, according to the UCLA researchers.

The biggest benefit was seen among the groups of workers at highest risk of back injury -- men who were 25 and younger or over age 55, had worked for the company for one to two years, and had jobs that required the highest intensity of lifting.

Home Depot employees logged more than 100 million work hours during the study period. Other workplace training and safety measures adopted by Home Depot during the study period were taken into account by researchers.

"People need to be careful about generalizing these findings to workers who are not engaged in material handling jobs," Kraus said. "There needs to be further research examining occupations such as construction, agriculture and mining to see if back supports prevent injuries to those workers."

The Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center is one of 10 injury prevention research centers sponsored nationally by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The center emphasizes study of injuries among high-risk groups, ethnic/racial minorities and other traditionally underserved populations.

Funding for the back support study was provided by the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center, the UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, the California State Department of Industrial Relations and the 3-E Company, a San Diego-based industrial safety consulting firm. Other authors of the study are Kathryn A. Brown, David L. McArthur, Corinne Peek-Asa and Lei Zhou, all of UCLA, and Lupe Samaniego and Chris Kraus of the 3-E Co.


Press contact: Warren Robak (warrenr@support.ucla.edu)
(310) 206-1960

 

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