A pain in the neck ... hips and back

Addressing ergonomic challenges and what manufacturers are doing for duty gear comfort

It's one of those things no one gives much thought to until they are painfully made aware; the day is suddenly much longer, each step is agony and sitting in the squad car an absent comfort.

Ergonomics deals with more than an intuitive design of product (though that does hold major sway in solving the issue). Where the equipment is placed, how the gear is suspended, and how the gear is used on a daily basis are just small aspects of the answer to: "What is good ergonomics?"

Each person's body type, habits and personality affects the interaction with his or her duty gear. For years law enforcement product manufacturers have been working tirelessly, with no end in sight, to provide officers with the unique designs and solutions to help ease the problems caused by poor ergonomics.

The most common and apparently nearly inevitable trouble experienced by law enforcement officers is back pain. With the average weight of a duty belt nearing 20 pounds, there should be no trouble in understanding how officers can develop an injury simply by wearing the tools they need to do their job.

Tom Wiersma of Duckbill LLC, a company that openly states it manufactures rugged, lightweight ergonomic carrying gear, says discomfort impacts more than musculoskeletal pain (like back pain). He also considers impact to the nervous system, soft-tissue damage as well as circulatory system restrictions.

While back pain can be easy to detect, it may not be as simple to discover that a belt pulled too tight can put a strain on blood flow, yet the resulting leg cramp that follows can make that day shift feel like forever.

"Everybody has a nerve that runs up over the hip bone, over the front, that controls the muscles in your upper leg in the front and a nerve down the back -- the sciatic nerve. The typical duty belt winds up supporting itself on exactly those four points on your waist: the two points on your hip bone ... and on your lower back," says Chuck Buis, the product line manager for holsters and duty gear from Blackhawk.

Duckbill's Wiersma adds further explanation, "An over-tight belt not only abrades on the 31 pairs of nerve roots exiting the spinal column through spaces in the vertebra at the base of the spine, but also restricts the nourishing blood flow these nerves require if they are to communicate properly between the brain and lower extremities."

Buis starts examining the ergonomic issue by looking at the officer's comfort, and suggests simply listening to the body. "If something hurts it's probably not good for you ... if something that you're wearing on a day-to-day basis hurts, the odds are it's doing some kind of damage to your body. So if your duty gear hurts, then you need to look for something different," he says.


While seemingly straightforward and shrewdly obvious, Buis uses an extensive history in law enforcement to help product design. Specifically Blackhawk addresses ergonomic issues by providing its Ergonomic Duty Gear Harness.

Working like suspenders, an equipment harness looks to do more than hold the pants up -- which forces manufacturers to take the suspender to another level. These harnesses are built to lift the weight away from the officer's hips and onto the shoulders.

Josh Riedel, owner and operations manager of Back Defense Systems, knew the company's harness needed to address officers' issues beyond what the typical commercial suspender can offer. According to Riedel, the Back Defender's design changed 92 times in its short history, each change stemming from officer and medical expert inputs.

"Our goal was to devise a system that goes beneath your uniform and supports the weight of your duty belt, yet allows you to loosen the belt so you can do everything you trained to do without impediment," says Riedel.

The Back Defender harness connects to the duty gear belt by belt keepers and provides a device to tuck the shirt into. Aside from other design differences, Blackhawk's Ergonomic Duty Gear Harness also attaches to the belt through the shirt.

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