Study: Employer Advice and Devices Don't Prevent Worker Back Pain

July 25, 2007
A Finnish review has concluded that employer attempts to push training programs that offer lifting advice and material handling devices in an effort to alleviate worker back pain do not prevent the malady, which is said to be the top cause of workers' compensation claims.

Lead author Kari-Pekka Martimo, of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki, said attempts made by employers to teach workers specific lifting methods or to have employees use devices such as hoists for lifting hospital patients, were “not effective” in preventing back pain or reducing disability claims or sick leave.

The review, which appears in the latest issue of the Cochrane Library, is an examination of data from more than 18,000 employees in 11 studies.

“Safer” Lifting Techniques May Not Exist

According to Martimo, one explanation for the negative findings could be that “safer” lifting techniques do not really exist, so teaching particular tactics would be unlikely to help.

“Another possibility is that elevated risk for back pain might not be related to lifting or moving heavy objects themselves, but to other aspects of work,” he said. High stress, for example, might link jobs that require lifting to back pain, rather than the lifting itself.

Alternatively, it could be that the way lifting and ergonomic techniques are taught is the problem – and that workers do not actually adopt better habits. However, the studies looked at many different training methods and did not find any to have a particular advantage.

"I don’t think it’s lack of adequate teaching methods,” Martimo said. One complication of assuming there is a “correct” lifting technique is that “when an employee has back pain, there’s a tendency to blame the victim because he didn’t [use the techniques or devices] correctly.”

Exercise: The “Only Known Effective Intervention”

“This study confirms that much of what is happening at the workplace is well-intentioned but probably pointless,” said Christopher Maher, associate professor of physiotherapy at the University of Sydney in Australia, who was not involved with the study.

According to Maher, regulatory agencies as well as employers make the mistake of concentrating on equipment and policies that don't work such as back belts, lifting devices and workplace re-design and fail to focus on the “only known effective intervention,” which is exercise.

“We also know that exercise has health benefits beyond prevention of back pain, so you are getting two health benefits (or more) for the price of one,” Maher added.

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