BACKGROUND: Low back pain (LBP) is a frequent health complaint among health care personnel. Several work tasks and working postures are associated with an increased risk of LBP. The aim of this study was to compare two self-reported measures of physical demands and their association with LBP (the daily number of patient handling tasks and Hollmann's physical load index). METHODS: A questionnaire was distributed to 535 hospital employees in a psychiatric and an orthopedic ward in a Danish hospital. Of these 411 (77%) filled in and returned the questionnaire. Only the 373 respondents who had non-missing values on both measures of physical demands were included in the analyses. The distribution of physical demands in different job groups and wards are presented, variance analysis models are employed, and logistic regression analysis is used to analyze the association between measures of physical demands and LBP. RESULTS: In combination, hospital ward and job category explained 56.6% and 23.3% of the variance in the self-reported physical demands measured as the daily number of patient handling tasks and as the score on the physical load index, respectively. When comparing the 6% with the highest exposure the prevalence odds ratio (POR) for LBP was 5.38 (95% CI 2.03-14.29) in the group performing more than 10 patient handling tasks per day and 2.29 (95% CI 0.93-5.66) in the group with the highest score on the physical load index. CONCLUSION: In specialized hospital wards the daily number of patient handling tasks seems to be a more feasible measure of exposure when assessing the risk of LBP compared to more advanced measures of physical load on the lower lumbar spine.