Brace yourself and lift for another day

August 04, 1993|By Shari Roan | Shari Roan,Los Angeles Times Robyn Davis of The Sun also contributed to this report.

Nurse Linda Covert doesn't have back problems and doesn't want them.

So every morning before leaving for work at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, she straps on a back-support belt -- an elastic contraption that serves as a reminder to Ms. Covert to lift carefully.

"When I'm going to transfer a patient or help lift or pull on someone or something, I cinch it up," she says. "And in doing so, I am saying to myself, 'I'm going to remember now that I'm going to use good body mechanics. I'm going to use my legs and arms properly.' "

Belts similar to those used by competitive weightlifters when hefting their massive loads can now be seen cinching the waists of luggage handlers, furniture movers, nurses, landscapers, even supermarket clerks -- practically anyone who does a lot of heavy lifting. The belts help stabilize the spine while lifting.

Back-support belts are rapidly becoming the hard hat of the '90s, many observers say.

"A lot of the original research on back-support belts was done in the sporting goods industry," says Ted Yewer, vice president of Valeo Inc., a back-support belt company in Waukesha, Wis. "But about two years ago, industry discovered the product and its benefits."

Some occupational-health experts worry about its growing popularity. There is little scientific research on the belts' effectiveness in the workplace. No studies have been done specifically to show which workers might benefit most from such belts and just how belts should be used. Some experts say the belts might be unnecessary if more attention were paid to workplace safety and

proper lifting techniques.

Still, it's clear that some new approaches are needed to reduce back injuries, which account for 22 percent of all occupational injuries, far exceeding all others, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As Ms. Nadler or anyone who has had a back injury can attest, they're debilitating and costly. Back injuries also account for 31 percent of workplace compensation costs, the Labor Department says.

"If you rupture a disk lifting something, that's it," Mr. Yewer says. "You'll be visiting the doctor, taking medication and limiting what you can do for the rest of your life."

Insurance companies, labor unions and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are pressuring employers to reduce back injuries. And back-support belts, which cost $20 to $50, are being seen as a possible remedy.

Some companies in the Baltimore area are footing the bill for their employees. Union Memorial Hospital spent $1,680 on 60 support belts for employees in departments where heavy lifting is required. Representatives for Hechinger Home Project Centers and Caldor department stores also say some of their employees have been provided with belts.

But back-support belts themselves are only a partial solution, according to Dr. Ian Armstrong, a neurosurgeon with the West Coast Spine Institute in Los Angeles.

"They have to be coupled with the proper use of the belt and proper lifting," he says. "You also have to look at changing the work environment to make it more safe."

Back injuries occur for many reasons, including improper lifting techniques, an unsafe work environment or a worker's poor physical condition, says Mike Peltier, safety director of the National Safety Council. Because there is no single cause of back injuries, the agency does not issue a blanket recommendation for the use of back-support belts.

"There are a lot of forces acting upon employers to find a quick solution." Mr. Peltier says. "But a lot of times there isn't a quick solution. Some people think you can just put a person in a back belt and it's the end of your problems. But I strongly disagree."

He says he often advises companies to use back-support belts for short-term use until "you can redesign the work station to reduce injuries." When someone lifts a heavy object, his abdominal muscles and the muscles at his sides and waist shrink. This creates pressure within the abdomen that pushes against the curve in the lower spine, holding the spine more rigid and thus compensating for the stress of the lift, Mr. Yewer says.

Back-support belts, which are made of a rigid, lightweight nylon and are usually worn over clothing, assist in this process by compressing the abdomen and increasing the pressure within.

However, "we're not sure how much the belts prevent injuries," says Dr. Michael Sinel, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the West Coast Spine Institute.

Surveys often show a lower rate of injuries once a company puts belts to use. But, he says, "we don't know if it was the belt itself or whether people were just more conscious of how to lift properly."

Dr. Armstrong thinks the benefits may be mainly psychological: "One of the major roles of a back belt is it acts as a reminder so you can use proper posture and biomechanics when lifting."

Another criticism of back belts is that, when worn frequently, they can weaken back muscles, actually increasing the risk of injury when the belt isn't worn. Workers should be instructed to tighten the belt for lifts and loosen it between lifts, experts say. Some belts have suspenders so the belt can be worn loosely between lifts. Wearing a back belt may also lead some people to believe they can lift more weight -- a dangerous misconception.

"It gives them a false sense of security," Dr. Armstrong says.

Some employees don't like back braces, as they can be uncomfortable, hot and scratchy. Mr. Peltier of the safety council has some advice for such people: Learn to lift properly and get in shape.

"Employees should put their energy into effective exercise programs," he says. "Being overweight and sedentary is the real problem."

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