Manual handling covers a variety of activities including lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling or carrying. Most industries require some form of manual handling activity.
Any injury sustained from carrying out any of these activities at work are called work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs). According to the Health and Safety Executive, any injuries associated with manual handling attribute to a third of WRMSDs.
There are many risks associated with the occurrence of manual handling accidents.
Risk factors around MSDs at work can be categorized into 3 areas.
- The individual (psychosocial and physical behaviours and limitations).
- The environment.
- The task.
A paper published in October 2019 by Health & Safety Executive, taken from Labor Force Survey, states that during the 2018/19 period an estimated 6.9 million working days were lost due to work related musculoskeletal disorders. An average of 14 days lost for each case. Of these, back disorders accounted for 2.8 million days lost.
Engaging in safe manual handling is crucial for protecting workers from the pain and suffering that occurs with WRMSDs. These injuries cost the individual, the organization and society. Workplaces are disrupted due to lost time, organizations suffer increased costs due to injury management and employees’ personal and family lives are affected in negative proportions.
What is a Manual Handling Risk Assessment?
Assessing a manual handling risk involves considering the type of activity involved to carry out a work-related task. There are numerous organizations that provide check lists and sheets to cross reference the tasks that are required to perform any given task. A comprehensive assessment will evaluate and identify any physical or environment hazards which may put a staff member at a greater risk of being injured.
Manual Handling Regulations
The International Labor Organization (ILO) is a United Nations agency that sets out international labor standards. Under occupational safety and health, they set forth standards that are required to be adhered to by employers. ILO standards on occupational safety and health provide essential tools for governments, employers and workers to establish such practices and provide maximum safety at work.
A guide for labor inspectors and other stakeholders (employers) is available under the resource’s library of the ILO website. This guide provides information about the management of occupational safety and health issues that are common across many sectors of different industries. Employers are encouraged to comply and act in accordance with the principles set out under this guide.
How to Reduce Manual Handling Injuries
Manual handling largely contributes to workplace injuries. Every year, WRMSDs lead to time off the job and reduce the productivity of a business. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a health protection agency in the U.S. and they provide resource and tools to assist employers make the right decisions when it relates to preventing manual handling injuries in the workplace. The topic and materials include but are not limited to:
- Ergonomic program and interventions
- Evidence based self-management programs
- Physical activity programs
- Ergonomic e-tools that provide informational resources on addressing hazards in general and for each specific industry
- Manual handling tables to be used to perform ergonomic assessments
Reducing manual handling injuries in the workplace requires breaking down the risks involved. These can be categorized into the individual worker, the environment and the task.
Studies of workplaces have shown that the most widespread changes in favor of an ergonomic intervention involved substantive ‘‘upstream’’ organizational change to support individual behavior change. The hierarchy of controls shows the principles of a health and safety program to address and cover MSD hazards.
This system of controlling risks in the workplace helps employers fulfill their occupational health and safety responsibilities.
Elimination: In line with the set of guidelines, the employer must first eliminate any hazard or risk to the employee.
Substitution: If elimination is not possible, minimize the risk by substitution, isolation or implementing engineering controls.
Engineering Controls: Implementing any engineering controls, equipment, machine or mechanical device to assist in eliminating risk.
Administrative Controls: any work methods or procedures designed to minimize risk. Signs, training, safety checklists, safety moments.
PPE: any protective wear that an employee can wear to minimize their exposure to risks.
OSHA recommend the following elements of an ergonomic process to effectively reduce the risk of developing a WRMSD:
- Provide Management Support
- Involve Workers
- Provide Training
- Identify Problems
- Encourage Early Reporting of MSD Symptoms
- Implement Solutions to Control Hazards
- Evaluate Progress
How to Perform Manual Handling Safely
Correct body mechanics and awareness of movements helps to maintain an injury free workplace. Workers are required to avoid any tasks they believe will cause harm to them or their associates. For any activity that involves manual handling, both the employer and employee must always take into account:
- Individual capability
- The nature of the load
- Environmental conditions
- Work organization
According to OSHA the following risk factors increase a worker’s risk of injury:
- Lifting heavy items
- Reaching overhead
- Pushing and pulling heavy loads
- Working in awkward body postures
- Performing the same or similar tasks repetitively
Lifting heavy items and bending: according to the ILO, there are simple and practical tips that employers and workers can do before and during any lifting or carrying of loads:
- Remove obstructions from the route.
- For a long lift, plan to rest the load midway on a table or bench to change grip.
- Keep the load close to the waist. The load should be kept close to the body for as long as possible while lifting.
- Keep the heaviest side of the load next to the body.
- Adopt a stable position and make sure your feet are apart, with one leg slightly forward to maintain balance.
Reaching overhead and Pushing and pulling heavy loads: Incorrect shoulder mechanics or faulty movement patterns resulting from learnt behavior, repetition, tension, emotions, pain inhibition, inflexibility, previous injury or pain, among other factors can contribute to causes of injury. Fatigue also plays a bit part. The muscles surrounding the joint are relatively small, and tire (fatigue) faster than bigger muscles, like those of the thigh. Fatigue interrupts the connections between these muscles (intermuscular coordination), making the joint prone to injury.
- Use mechanical aids where possible such as hoists, trolleys and slides
- Avoid any open shoulder pulling
- Provide proprioception training around using the bodyweight to move an object rather than the shoulder
Awkward body postures: When the body holds a single position for an extended period or shifts position but fails to allow the muscles to return to a neutral position, comfort and performance are impaired. Static postures increase the load on muscles and tendons compared to dynamic postures. These static positions may reduce blood flow to the muscles, thus preventing the body from engaging in the natural process of restoration and repair.
- Organize job rotations
- Schedule regular breaks
- Perform gentle, sustained stretches
- Provide proper support structures for feet or body
Repetition: tasks repeated frequently enough are sure to develop damage to exposed tissues. As with force and intensity, the higher the magnitude of the task in combination with repetition, the more rapid the onset of tissue deterioration.
- Avoid double handling of goods
- Use mechanical aids where possible
- Share workloads
Responding to Manual Handling Accidents
Following the report of a manual handling injury it is best practice to manage the condition and investigate how the incident occurred.
Injury management should be initiated immediately, and a return-to-work program started as soon as recovery has begun.
A systematic investigation of the risk factors and any possible causes should be conducted. All team members should be included as well as safety representatives and any person involved that has knowledge of the duties around the task.
Incident Investigation should:
- Identify any unsafe conditions or procedures
- Follow a system or procedure that assist in uncovering causes
- Incorporate the 5W’s (who, what, where, when and why)
- Investigate events before and during the incident and any possible cumulative risk factors
- Aim to prevent reoccurrence
- Uncover need for change of methods, layout, aids, breaks
- Share findings with workers and health and safety representatives
Safe manual handling practices require a commitment from management, worker participation and training that is engaging and provides industry specific information. The responsibility lies with both management and the worker to continually work together with open communication and a speak up approach.
The culture of safety established by leadership is generated from the company values which forms the basis of how workers view their own well-being.
How Soter Analytics Helps
SoterCoach Manual Handling Training program teaches workers correct lifting techniques in a real-time mode, using a mobile app with inbuilt tutorials. Audio & haptic feedback from the wearable device while working delivers the vital tool for self-correction and behavioural change. The in-situ micro-learning and immediate feedback engage workers, increasing their posture and movement awareness reducing the risk of back or shoulder injury.
About Soter Analytics
Soter Analytics is a global safety science company producing AI-supported wearable solutions that reduce the risk of ergonomic injuries in the workplace. Soter wearables are widely used in logistics, manufacturing, healthcare and other industries, helping leading companies to prevent up to 55% of back & shoulder musculoskeletal injuries.