Ergonomics and police duty belts: easing the load
Feb 5, 2010 Kathy Espinoza | US Government Product News
Duty belt discomfort is a common complaint and a significant health and safety issue for uniformed police personnel. Pain in the low back, hip and pelvis can be caused by pressure exerted by the edges of the duty belt, holster shank and other equipment attached to the belt. Further compounding the problem is the length of time officers are required to perform their job behind the wheel of the patrol car.
Duty belts are designed to carry equipment in a readily accessible manner while leaving the officer's hands free. The equipment is a necessary part of the job and must be carried on his/her body while working. Duty belt equipment can include a handgun, handcuffs, flashlight, latex gloves, baton, radio and pepper spray canister and can weigh up to 20 pounds (9.07 kg) when fully loaded dependent on duty vest configuration. According to a University of California, San Francisco/Berkeley Ergonomics Program study, discomfort from wearing a duty belt is driven by the amount/weight of equipment on the belt, the placement of those items against the body and the force exerted on the equipment when the officer is seated in the patrol vehicle.
Duty belts are typically 2.25 inches ( 5.71 cms) wide and made of leather. The rectangular brass buckle can be 2 inches ( 5.08cms) wide by nearly 3 inches (7.62cms) high and places uncomfortable pressure on the front of the pelvis and abdomen when driving and/or sitting for extended periods of time. Over the years, the discomfort felt from duty belts has gotten worse because of the increased time spent in vehicles and heavier gear carried on the belt. The addition of radios and extra handcuffs, handguns and spare magazines can add 3 to 4 pounds to the belt.
The belt itself is another source of discomfort. The more rigid the duty belt holster system, the more critical are its shape and location in obtaining a proper fit for the individual. Many leather duty belts can take several years to break in.
Patrol vehicle seats can be another factor in duty belt discomfort. Bolsters on the sides of the seats can produce pressure on the sidearm and radio, which tends to push the officer forward, reducing the amount of low back support. Worn vehicle cushions can exacerbate the discomfort by allowing the officer to sink lower into the middle of the seat.
- Alternatives for the duty belt
- Suspenders are effective because they distribute the weight of the equipment over the shoulders and chest rather than just on the waist. That also means that the belt does not have to be worn as tight, cutting down on pressure exerted on the stomach and waist area. There are safety concerns about suspenders because they can be used against the officer in a struggle, but newer versions act like a clip-on tie when pulled, reducing the risk of injury to the officer.
- Tactical vests or harnesses contain multiple pouches over the chest and back. A harness goes over the ballistic vest and can reduce the need for officers to keep reaching around for their equipment.
- Loading the duty belt
- Avoid placing hard objects (handcuffs) on the lumbar spine. Handcuffs carried on the back of the belt may create back pain from constant pressure on the lower back while sitting in a car. Although that may not be a problem for beat officers who patrol an area on foot, it can cause severe problems in vehicle-based "response" officers. Outside the car, they can be dangerous in a fall, where the spine can be injured severely by the handcuffs.
- Place a soft pouch over the lumbar spine on the duty belt. A good example might be a soft pouch containing latex gloves.
- Flashlights should be compact, light and powerful. Thinner and smaller lights are easier to control and are more likely to be carried at all times. Metal flashlights can be uncomfortable when left in the direct sunlight or held in an ungloved hand on a cold day. Flashlights are often placed on the hood or trunk of a car, so consideration should be given to one with an anti-roll capability. Long, cylindrical flashlights tend to be carried in a flashlight ring. Rings are simple and inexpensive, and are convenient for flashlights that are not regularly carried. Flashlights in a ring with a great amount of vertical and horizontal freedom can make the light insecure and uncomfortable to carry.
- Start with a better belt
The 2003 U.C. Ergonomics Program study found the following belt characteristics effective in reducing duty belt discomfort:
- Rounded, padded edges on the top and bottom. Belts with a hard edge tend to dig in under the ribs, whereas a belt with rounder, padded edges on the top and bottom conform better to the body.
- Lower profile, with a 2-inch thickness (top to bottom) of belt and buckle. Nylon belts that are 2 inches wide resulted in increased officer comfort with fewer complaints of the belt digging in under the ribs and on the rim of the pelvis.
- Washable, moderately flexible nylon material. Nylon duty gear is generally less expensive, lighter, and easier to maintain than leather gear of comparable quality. Leather gear is generally regarded as having a more traditional and professional appearance. One option might be to try a belt that combines both materials, one where the belt is a manufactured nylon duty gear belt that has the appearance of leather, with a 'basket-weave' pattern.
- Leather belts with buckle closures have less adjustability than nylon belts and have adjustment holes for the buckle 1.25 inches apart, which can leave the belt too tight or too loose. A belt that is too loose can be problematic in the event of a foot pursuit. A belt that is too tight creates excessive pressure on the officer's pelvic and hip areas.