Woman manually lifting three boxes in sensitive environment

Hazardous manual handling (risk assessment + preventions)

Food & Beverage, Health, Safety & Ergonomics, Logistics, Manufacturing, Pharmaceuticals

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused by manual handling are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time. By doing a risk assessment at your workplace, active preventions can be taken to avoid MSDs. Using ergonomic lifting equipment as a preventative measure can often be cost-effective and provide additional benefits.

Essentially, manual handling of loads are a major cause of occupational ill health. Several risk factors make manual handling of loads hazardous and increase the risk of injury. These factors can be categorized into; the load, the task, the environment and the individual.

In this article you will get more insights on these categories. We’ll also guide you through some easy steps to follow when doing a risk assessment of manual handling at your workplace (including a helpful checklist to get you started).

A risk assessment is a careful examination of what in the workplace could potentially cause harm to people working there, and taking control measures to prevent these risks. Preventative measures, such as using ergonomic lifting equipment, can often be cost-effective and beneficial for employee health & safety, but also from a productive point of view.

Why is manual handling risk prevention important?

Although technological advancements have made some work environments less dependent on manual handling, many jobs still require workers to lift and move heavy items. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused by manual handling are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2013, MSD cases accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases.

Woman manually lifting three boxes in sensitive environment

Most often, MSDs are the result of many repeated, moderate force applications that are sustained over an extended period of time. Prevention is vital to avoid this type of MSD disorders

What are the main risks factors in manual handling?

Manual handling in the workplace involves any transporting or supporting of a load by one or more workers. This includes the lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, carrying or moving of a load. There are several risk factors that make manual handling of loads hazardous and increase the risk of injuries.

Two groups of injuries are often associated with manual handling:

  1. The first includes cuts, fractures etc. due to sudden or unexpected events such as accidents.
  2. The second includes damage to the musculoskeletal system (MSDs) of the body. This is a result of gradual and cumulative wear and tear through repetitive manual handling.

Prevention is vital when it comes to work-related MSDs due to manual handling. These disorders may have serious consequences for the workers and could restrict their ability to undertake a wide range of work and leisure activities for the reminder of their lives. The risk of lifting or moving loads can be associated with all types of MSDs. The more workers are exposed (for longer periods or higher percentage of their work time) the more likely they are to report an MSD complaint.

Man lifting a box above shoulder height

Work-related back pain is the most common MSD caused by manual handling of loads. About one fourth of European workers suffer from back pain, which tops the list of all reported work-related disorders. There are several risk factors that make manual handling of loads hazardous and increase the risk of musculoskeletal injury. These can be categorized as follows:

The load being:

  • Too heavy: there is no exact weight limit for safe manual handling, but a weight of 20 to 25 kg is heavy to lift for most people.
  • Too large: if the load is large and can’t be lifted or carried close to the body, the muscles will get tired more rapidly. Especially if the load is handled several times in an hour.
  • Difficult to grasp: can result in the object slipping, causing sudden movement to the load and increase the risk of accidents.
  • Difficult to reach: if the load is difficult to reach and requires the worker to bend or twist the trunk while lifting, the spine may easily be hurt.
  • Unbalanced: resulting in uneven loading of muscles due to the center of gravity of the load being away from the middle of the worker’s body.
  • Of a shape or size that limits the workers view: increasing the risk of tripping, falling or collision.

The task:

  • Being too strenuous e.g. carried out too frequently or for long periods of time with insufficient recovery time.
  • Involving awkward movements or postures e.g. bent or twisted trunk, over-reaching, raised arms or holding loads away from the body.
  • Involving repetitive handling of loads.

The work environment:

  • Lacking sufficient space when carrying out manual handling may lead to straining body postures and dangerous imbalance in the loads.
  • Having slippery, uneven or unstable floors may increase the risk of accidents.
  • Having extreme temperatures. Heat makes workers feel more tired and sweat makes it harder to hold objects, resulting in that more force must be used. Cold can result in numb hands that make it harder to grip objects.
  • Poor lighting may increase the risk of accidents when handling loads. It can also force workers into awkward body positions to try to see clearly what they are doing.

Individual and lifestyle factors including:

  • Physical capabilities such as weight, height and strength.
  • Age – the risk of low back disorders increases with age and with the number of years at work. The first case of low back pain often occurs by the age of 30.
  • Lack of experience or training.
  • Prior medical history.
  • Lifestyle and habits e.g. smoking and lack of exercise.

What is a manual handling risk assessment?

Employers are required to assess the health and safety risks resulting from work-related tasks, such as manual handling. A risk assessment is a careful examination of what in the workplace could potentially cause harm to people working there. After this assessment, it can be decided if sufficient precautions have been taken, or if it’s necessary to do more to prevent these risks. The challenge is to eliminate, or at least reduce, the risk for accidents, injuries or ill health that arise from hazardous manual tasks.

Four steps to do a workplace risk assessment

A good risk assessment can actually benefit businesses by reducing the costs from lost output and employee sick-leave. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work offer a helpful checklist to help carry out a risk assessment.

What can I do to prevent the risks of hazardous manual handling?

After completing the risk assessment, a list of control measures should be made in order of priority. The following control measures can be taken to help prevent manual handling risks in the workplace:

Elimination of manual handling

Consider whether the work can be organized in a way to avoid or at least reduce manual handling of loads. Look into the possibility of redesigning tasks or using powered or mechanical handling equipment, such as lift trucks or conveyors.

Technical measures

If manual handling cannot be avoided, automation and the use of lifting and transporting equipment should be considered. Examples of ergonomic lifting devices include vacuum lifters, hoists and trolleys.

These preventative measures can often be cost-effective. Benefits of using ergonomic lifting aids include:

  • Improved/maintained productivity
  • Reduced employee turnover costs
  • Increased workforce flexibility
  • Reduction of injury and ill health amongst the workers

Organizational measures

Should only be considered if elimination or technical measures are not possible. These measures include improving workplace conditions to reduce risks, e.g. planning the storage of material close to the place where it’s being processed and ensuring that materials that need to be lifted manually are positioned in a way that limits reaching or bending for the worker.

Frequent or heavy tasks should be carried out by several people. If possible the amount that is handled should be reduced and the load split into smaller units. The time a worker spends on carrying out manual handling tasks should be extended with breaks or by alternating with other tasks.

Provide information and training to workers

If workers have to do manual handling activities, make sure to inform them of the potential risks and  how to recognize and avoid them. Workers also need to receive adequate training on the use of equipment and correct handling techniques.

Cost effective preventative measures for your industry

When assessing workplace risks associated with manual handling, it’s important to take into account the various aspects of the load, the task, the environment and the individual. After doing a risk assessment following our simple four step guide, the necessary preventative measures can be taken.

Preventative measures, such as using ergonomic lifting equipment can often be cost-effective and provide benefits such as improved productivity and reduced employee turnover costs. More about manual handling challenges and ergonomic lifting solutions for your industry is provided here.

 

 

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