Back support devices don’t work but new designs should be investigated

In 2009 Australian OHS regulators made the definitive statement on the use of back belts.  The guidance stated that:

  • Back belts don’t reduce the forces on the spine
  • Back belts don’t reduce the strain on muscles,tendons and ligaments
  • Back belts do nothing to reduce fatigue or to increase the ability to lift
  • Back belts are like holding your breath when lifting
  • Back belts can increase blood pressure and breathing rate
  • Back belts don’t reduce the chance of injury or reduce back pain.

This was a terrific example of evidence-based safety.  But this does not mean that the use of back belts should not be reconsidered if there is new evidence or new back belt designs.

One SafetyAtWorkBlog reader has drawn our attention to a new type of back support, The Tolai All Purpose Back Support.  In no way does this blog support this particular device.  In fact, there is a strong argument against the widespread use of such devices as these may advocate the reliance on PPE (personal protective equipment) rather than a higher order of control, such as task redesign, which would result in a more sustainable solution.

However, there is a counter argument of the need to support innovation and the position of continuous improvement.

The manufacturers of this, relatively new, back support device may have customer testimonials and analysis by a physiotherapist but considerably more evidence is required before there is a strong case for the device’s widespread use.

The back belt guidance mentioned above does state that back belts may be useful after an injury but only when “prescribed by treating doctors or physiotherapists”.  The Tolai device needs to show a level of evidence  that would encourage the support of such devices by the medical fraternity and OHS regulators.  To be considered an acceptable injury control option there needs to be broad medical support for the use of these devices and the Australian OHS regulators would need to acknowledge the benefits of such devices.  A lot of work needs to be undertaken by the manufacturers to achieve this acceptance but it may be worthwhile to pursue.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

7 thoughts on “Back support devices don’t work but new designs should be investigated”

  1. David\’s contribution is exactly what I am talking about. The \”girdle\” style of support belt is a lumbar belt only and is not suitable for active lifting and there is some argument that style of belt is likely to reduce stomach muscle activity, something to be avoided if you wish to build core strength.

    The Tolai support is not of the same design and in effect, positively encourages stomach and associated muscle activity. I mention this not in defense, but as clarification of the difference in types of belts. Maybe Kevin might like to provide readers with the Youtube video link that clearly shows the Tolai device in use.

    Rosemary talks of the exoskeletons (all the rage in development for armed forces development in the USA) check out the Tolai video and make up your own minds.

    I repeat this is not some kind of marketing ploy but a genuine attempt to advance debate, knowledge and hopefully encourage others to have a go at practical application of ideas that are easily and readily transferable in the workplace and the need for support for those activities from industry and government.

    I would like to thank Kevin for accepting my contribution in the spirit in which it is meant.

    1. Tony, the Youtube link is This video is a good illustration of how the device is fitted and includes client testimonials but this is well below the level of evidence, usually, required to gain the support (no pun intended) of OHS regulators, industry practitioners and safety advocates.

  2. Each of the points enumerated in the blog are in effect incorrect, given there is independent University testing evidence to the contrary for the Tolai device. I do not want to get into a he said she said set to.

    Kevin for your information, the Tolai All Purpose Back support has been on the market for over 22 years and won a multitude of Australian and international awards.

    Innovation at the coal face where cold hard cash has to be spent to provide protection is not a priority and the avoidance mentality is still alive and kicking, we know this because we keep a very close eye on the back injury stats and surprise, surprise, there does not seem to be much improvement over the last 20 years, particularly when you calculate the number of manual handling jobs that have disappeared from our manufacturing industries.

    You quote \”terrific evidenced – based safety\” and you damn the product with faint praise, yet do not provide any alternative except the higher order of control. How long have we been hearing the redesign story with very limited proof of outcomes. and in many cases worse outcomes than the status quo, particularly with small business.

    As indicated to you, I have a commercial interest in the product and have had for over 20 years thus my interest in safety. I do not need any assistance from your readers to further our commercial interests, we have plenty of demand, in the main, by recommendation and specification by medical professionals. My thoughts were to turn people minds to practical and innovative means of attaining a safe work environment particularly for those that are cost challenged and the Tolai product is just one of thousands that may have an application.

    We have pretty much heard all the arguments yet we still do not see any real improvement in the area of back injury prevention. I will say it, it is impossible to redesign every task to remove the risk of back injury and anyone who says that it is possible is not of much help to workplace safety.

    I suppose steel capped boots and hard hats had many naysayers in their day, we should not be too blinkered in viewing what may be the next best piece of gear in the PPE kit.

    I don\’t think your contribution has advanced the cause of safety.

    If I offend then I am sorry, but as one who really works at the coal face of prevention and rehabilitation I am charged with speaking my mind.

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