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Manual handling is reported as the root cause of more than a third of all workplace injuries. Poor manual handling can result in injuries, joint problems and other long-term musculoskeletal disorders.
In addition to anxiety and stress, musculoskeletal disorders rank as one of the main reasons that workdays are lost in the UK. In the year 2019/20, an estimated 38.8 million days of work had to be missed due to workplace ill health and non-fatal accidents at work.
It is therefore very important that staff understand what is expected of them regarding manual handling, safe practices and looking after their health and safety at work.
What is manual handling?
The term manual handling is typically associated with the movement or transportation of an object, or load, from point A to point B. Manual handling actually encompasses a range of activities, including lifting, twisting, pushing, pulling, lowering and carrying either by hand or by using ‘bodily force’.
Tasks in the workplace are becoming increasingly automated. The use of equipment and machinery can mean that workers do not have to rely solely on their physical capabilities any longer, however, this does not negate the need for manual handling completely.
Many manual handling tasks may involve the interface between humans and technology, such as stacking loads for transportation on a conveyer – and in these cases it is not always the nature of the load itself that can present a hazard, but the repetitive nature of the tasks.
It is vital that workers do not overstretch or overburden their bodies at work, whether they are assisted by technology or relying solely on manpower to shift and carry loads around. Whilst machinery can be repaired or replaced, once damaged, the human body can sometimes struggle to repair itself adequately. This means that after a work-related incident of ill health, some workers will have their lives changed forever.
What jobs require manual handling?
Some jobs will be more commonly associated with manual handling than others, such as furniture removers, construction workers, carers and warehouse employees. However, manual handling is a common requirement of many jobs and sometimes you may not even think of certain tasks as manual handling, such as carrying crates of drinks around in a bar, filling up the photocopier with paper or setting up AV equipment for a conference.
Most jobs will require some level of competency around manual handling in order for staff to carry out tasks safely; from office staff to hospitality workers, there will often be a load that needs lifting or moving or a physical task that needs completing. This is why it is so important that everyone at work understands what manual handling is, exactly what is required of them and the impact that poor manual handling could have on their health and wellbeing.
What are the consequences of poor manual handling?
There can be both short- and long-term consequences of poor manual handling. Some accidents and injuries due to manual handling will present an immediate consequence, such as:
- Sprains or strains.
- Cuts, scrapes and bruises.
- Broken bones.
In extreme cases, if loads are not handled correctly or health and safety protocols are not adhered to, poor manual handling can result in crushes, slips, trips and falls and even death.
Other consequences of poor manual handling can present themselves over time, or get worse over time, especially if occupational hazards at work continue unchecked.
These can include:
- Joint problems.
- Back problems.
- Musculoskeletal disorders.
- Arm and leg injuries.
- OOS (occupational overuse syndrome).
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are commonly caused, or made worse, by manual handling at work. They usually affect the lower back, hips, feet, ankles, wrists or hands. The pain is not always localised and workers can experience the occurrence of different MSDs at the same time.
For the year 2019/20, a Labour Force Survey estimated that of 1.6 million workers suffering from work-related ill health, 30% of these were due to musculoskeletal disorders, second only to anxiety, stress and depression.
Osteopaths for Industry identified that those working in the building trade, nursing, skilled agriculture and personal care had a higher rate of musculoskeletal disorders compared to the industry average across all occupations.
This is not surprising, as employees within these fields often have to work with heavy loads, especially ‘live loads’, i.e. people or animals that can be awkward to manoeuvre, and perform repetitive tasks, often outdoors at the mercy of the weather conditions.
The cost to both the employer and employee of poor manual handling can be high. Employers have a duty of care to their workers and if they are found to be negligent and the worker has an accident, they leave themselves open to legal action.
There is also a cost in loss of labour due to sick days taken as a result of incidents related to manual handling and the impact this has on productivity and staff morale, as well as stock losses due to crushes or breakages.
For employees, injuries due to poor manual handling can cause them a financial loss, especially if they have to take time off work due to illness and are not entitled to sickness pay, as well as having an impact of their physical and even mental health as they experience pain, swelling, lack of mobility and sleep problems.
Health issues due to manual handling, especially those relating to repetitive strain, can be debilitating and extremely painful. Back problems are amongst the most common manual handling injury and having severe back pain can have a serious impact on a person’s quality of life and ability to perform day-to-day tasks. Some opioid medication that is routinely prescribed to people that are suffering from chronic pain also poses individual risks of addiction.
Mental health can also be impacted, especially if workers suddenly find themselves unable to work for periods of time and are left feeling helpless, as well as suffering from money worries.
This can be a vicious cycle; one which can be broken by using appropriate health and safety practices and being vigilant about looking after your body in the workplace, to minimise the chance of a manual handling injury occurring in the first place.
How to avoid poor manual handling
The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 covers legislation relating specifically to manual handling at work. It outlines topics for employers to consider around manual handling and states the employer’s liability around accidents or incidents that arise through poor manual handling practices.
There are four main areas to think about when it comes to manual handling:
1. What exactly does the task involve ?
2. How capable is the individual or individuals that are performing the task?
3. What are the characteristics of the load?
4. What is the layout of the environment like?
These four main areas of consideration can be remembered by the acronym TILE (task, individual, load, environment) – or sometimes LITE.
Regardless of the nature of the work that is being undertaken, when it comes to carrying out manual handling it is important for all staff to understand about the following:
- Carry out an adequate risk assessment – Risk assessments should be carried out by a sufficiently experienced/qualified member of staff, using the TILE set of principles. Any necessary changes that need to be made (for example, if an employee is pregnant) need to be considered and any PPE or piece of equipment that can make the manual handing tasks safer should be provided.
- Don’t overburden yourself – Know your limits and don’t perform any tasks you are not confident about or have not been trained to do.
- Ask for help – Some loads will require the strength of multiple people; do not try to struggle alone. Use a piece of technology or equipment to help you if you have the option to.
- Training is key – It is important to conduct regular training sessions on manual handling, including induction training for new starters and refresher training for all staff periodically.
- Report any near misses to your supervisor – People think about reporting accidents but often forget about near misses. By reporting near misses, you can help to identify hazards before they become hazards and prevent potential incidents from occurring.
- Report hazards or accidents immediately – Getting the right help or medical intervention after an accident at work can minimise the long-term impact on the injured worker’s health.
- Good housekeeping – When you are managing a load, your line of vision, especially of the floor, will likely be impaired. This increases the risk of a slip or fall and makes good housekeeping extremely important. Work areas should always be kept clean and clear and the floor free of debris. Spillages should be dealt with immediately and appropriate signage used.
- Know your environment – For example, is the floor even and is there sufficient room to perform the manoeuvre – is it a straight run to your destination or are you required to turn? Is there adequate lighting? Understanding your environment is vital when it comes to safe manual handling.
Manual handling is not always avoidable and is often an expected part of many jobs in most fields of industry. Managing the risks associated with manual handling is therefore extremely important. It is also helpful if, upon completing their risk assessment, employers note any equipment that could help to negate the need for ‘bodily force’ to be used, such as trollies, lifts, conveyors or pulley systems, and ensure that this equipment is provided and is fit for purpose.
A short-term investment in assistive technology can often provide a long-term gain to staff health and wellbeing, as well as improved productivity.
How to lift well
Lifting is one of the most common manual handling activities performed at work. On the job training sessions should cover how to lift correctly and it can also be helpful to have such information displayed on posters around the workplace or on internal email communications or the intranet.
Even the most experienced workers can become complacent over time, therefore it is always useful to have reminders and regular health and safety training sessions available, to minimise the chance of a work-related incident. You might want to ask your employees to take our quiz, to test their knowledge and identify any weak points.
The basics all workers should remember when lifting are:
- Plan your lift – Can you carry it alone and is any machinery going to be used? Where are you going with your load and do you know exactly how to get there? Try travelling the route without the load first to familiarise yourself with it.
- Use a stable position – Wear suitable footwear (and PPE if necessary), keep the feet slightly apart and well grounded. Having one foot slightly forward can help to keep you balanced.
- Have a good posture – Bend using the knees not your back, avoid using a ‘stooping’ action. Keep the load close to the body and around waist height.
- Don’t stretch, twist or lean back too far – This can make you unstable. Try to move with a smooth motion and use the feet to turn rather than twisting your body, as this will decrease the risk of injury to the lower back.
- Know your limits – The consequences of poor manual handling can range from a slight accident or feeling uncomfortable to a serious injury and even a fatal incident. Do not handle any loads you are not confident with – physical strength and capability varies between individuals. If in doubt do not attempt to move any load and ask for help instead.
With proper training, robust risk assessments and a safe and well-maintained working environment, accidents and illnesses relating to unsafe manual handling practices in the workplace can be significantly reduced.