Police Officers and Duty Belts – How Back Injuries Can Be Prevented
Think of all the dangers police officers face. They are punched, shot at, struck by cars during traffic stops, injured while restraining combative suspects, and in collisions while in a vehicle pursuit. These are just a few of the perils they encounter. Often though, the injuries which occur while police officers are in the daily grind of the job are the most common.
One of the main culprits of low back and hip injuries is the duty belt. Low back and hip injuries/conditions caused by wearing a duty belt are some of the most underreported types of injuries suffered by police officers. Police are required to carry the following items on their duty belt: radio, gun with a gun light, two extra magazines, two pairs of handcuffs, pepper spray, baton, small flashlight, large light, glove case, tourniquet kit and a Taser. All told, a police officer could be carrying anywhere between 20 and 24 pounds on their duty belt. All that weight pushing right down on their low back and hips during an entire work shift causes long term affects.
Imagine this for a minute. You get up in the morning and put your clothes on for work. Maybe you wear a suit, maybe you have a uniform, but you probably do not have 22 pounds hanging from your belt. So instead of your normal leather belt, it is instead filled with 22 pounds of weight. Or maybe you hang a bag of potatoes from your belt? Or 2 large bowling balls? Or maybe 5 reams of paper? And imagine if that was part of your daily ‘uniform’. You wear it driving to work, walking to get your morning coffee and sitting at your desk. Common sense tells us that our back would be sore at the end of the day. We have all had sore backs from carrying mulch, shoveling snow, carrying our kids or grandkids for long stretches, and moving friends and families.
Police officers have to wear 22 pounds or more around their waist during every hour of every shift. They wear them sitting in the patrol car, pursuing suspects, on foot patrol, during roll call, filling out reports, sitting in court for hours at a time waiting for a case to be called and eating lunch/dinner/breakfast. All day, every day, 22 pounds or more of downward pressure on your hips and lumbar spine. Not to mention the discomfort of sitting in a patrol car with a seat belt and the bolsters on both sides of the seats producing pressure on the belt pushing it up into the back.
But there are some techniques police departments and police officers can utilize to lessen the discomfort and delay the onset of injuries. For departments, the number one way to prevent or lessen back injuries from duty belts is to just do away with them all together. Switching to tactical vests or harnesses can do more to prevent back injuries than anything else. Unfortunately, few patrol officers are issued tactical vests. It is common sense that wearing a backpack is a heck of a lot more comfortable than wearing a fanny pack. Also, departments can provide nylon belts instead of leather belts. Nylon belts are lighter and more flexible than leather belts. But these cost money, and in an era of shrinking municipal budgets, they are unfortunately an unlikely fix.
Sadly, it is up to police to protect themselves. When seated in a patrol car, change posture often, take breaks when possible, stand up and walk around, alter the driver’s seat with a lumbar pillow to provide more support. When on foot patrol, take the opportunity to stretch. If, however, a police officer is experiencing back pain, it is unlikely to get better by ignoring the problem. Back and hip injuries caused by wearing duty belts are consistently underreported.
When these back and hip injuries do happen, it’s vital that police report these injuries to supervisors and seek medical attention. The wrong response is to ignore it and hope it gets better. Finally once the injury has been reported and documented by a doctor, police must file a workers’ compensation claim to ensure their medical rights are protected for the rest of their lives.
Our police, who risk their lives every day to protect our communities and our families, should be provided every piece of equipment to make their increasingly difficult and dangerous jobs safer. After all, many of these brave men and women are going home to their own families, and should not have to be living in constant back pain because local governments are not prioritizing the health and safety of our first responders.