The HSE’s 2019/20 ‘Health and Safety at Work’ report shows that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) remain the most common cause of work-related ill health in the UK. Currently, 480,000 employees suffer from new or long-standing back, neck and limb conditions, many of which can be traced back to poor manual handling techniques.
Manual handling risks – linked to tasks involving lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, carrying and holding – are present in all industries, although injury statistics spike in particular sectors, such as agriculture and construction. It’s therefore essential to understand the specific risks within your industry, associated activities and work routines.
The positive news? Manual handling hazards and their associated health problems, staff absence costs and productivity setbacks are easily controlled with a few common-sense safety fundamentals.
Manual handling issues can be tackled with a three-step ‘Avoid, Assess, Reduce’ methodology of risk management.
Before transporting any load using physical means, ask a series of key questions with the goal of removing the necessity for manual handling. For example:
- Does the load genuinely need to be moved?
- Can it be shifted without hands-on contact?
- Could mechanical and automated handling aids be used?
If the need for manual handling cannot be eliminated, conduct a thorough risk assessment of the job, from start to finish. You should consider health and safety risks related to:
- The task – Has it been clearly defined and demonstrated? What type of physical movement does it demand?
- The load – Is it heavy, unwieldy or hard to manoeuvre?
- The working environment – Are there blind spots, trip hazards or restricted access areas?
- Individual capacity – Do your employees have existing health and/or physical limitations?
- Organisation of the activity – Can the effort be shared or staggered?
- Pace – Can the task be completed safely and carefully within the available time?
- Frequency – Does the operation involve repetitive actions? How often does it need to occur?
- Duration – Could the job cause injury or strain over a sustained period?
—> Reduce and control
When manual handling activity is unavoidable, minimise injury risks with proactive measures that safeguard your team’s immediate and long-term wellbeing. Examine safer ways of working when undertaking your assessment by posing questions such as:
- Can manually operated handling aids be used? Also considering if workers are trained in their correct use.
- Could the load be modified or broken down into smaller bundles?
- Could the environment be changed to cut hazards? For example, reducing distances, improving lighting and controlling temperature.
- Can storage arrangements be altered or additional space provided?
- How could the activity or work routine be adapted to mitigate risks?
- Is PPE required to supplement all other implemented controls? This might include head protection, gloves and/or safety shoes.
- Have staff been suitably trained? As a minimum, training should cover understanding manual handling risks, how to use any aids provided, safe practice in handling and lifting methods, dynamic assessment of working environments, instruction on the activity risk assessments and safe systems of work.
Take safety measures to the next level – are you doing enough?
Once you’ve addressed the basics of safe manual handling, explore what more you can do to strengthen your compliance protocols. These precautions will not only guard against injuries and recurring MSDs, but also help prevent costly claims in the event of an accident or ill health.
- Risk filters. When undertaking or reviewing the initial assessment of any activity, risk filters should be utilised to determine the level of risk involved with each individual task. They will also help indicate if you require a more detailed audit. For instance, by analysing workers’ posture during typical pushing, pulling or handling exercises, you can test the effectiveness of your existing manual handling procedures and closely consult with your team throughout the risk assessment process.
- Task-specific training. Is your training delivering the precise skills your staff need to stay safe? Generalised manual handling instruction rarely highlights the in-depth details of activity-specific duties. Bespoke training – demonstrating risk management techniques unique to your work practices and environment – can significantly raise standards and signal early warning signs of medical issues, knowledge gaps, individual technique and compliance concerns.
- Cutting-edge technology. Advanced H&S tools help you build on best practice and stay a step ahead of staff health problems. Wearable manual handling devices, created for those at heightened risk of musculoskeletal disorders, could head off injury hazards and keep every member of your team protected and productive.