Purpose Much research has been performed on physical exposures during work (e.g. lifting, trunk flexion or body vibrations) as risk factors for low back pain (LBP), however results are inconsistent. Information on the effect of doses (e.g. spinal force or low back moments) on LBP may be more reliable but is lacking yet. The aim of the present study was to investigate the prospective relationship of cumulative low back loads (CLBL) with LBP and to compare the association of this mechanical load measure to exposure measures used previously. Methods The current study was part of the Study on Musculoskeletal disorders, Absenteeism and Health (SMASH) study in which 1,745 workers completed questionnaires. Physical load at the workplace was assessed by video-observations and force measurements. These measures were used to calculate CLBL. Furthermore, a 3-year follow-up was conducted to assess the occurrence of LBP. Logistic regressions were performed to assess associations of CLBL and physical risk factors established earlier (i.e. lifting and working in a flexed posture) with LBP. Furthermore, CLBL and the risk factors combined were assessed as predictors in logistic regression analyses to assess the association with LBP. Results Results showed that CLBL is a significant risk factor for LBP (OR: 2.06 (1.32-3.20)). Furthermore, CLBL had a more consistent association with LBP than two of the three risk factors reported earlier. Conclusions From these results it can be concluded that CLBL is a risk factor for the occurrence of LBP, having a more consistent association with LBP compared to most risk factors reported earlier. © 2012 The Author(s).