Manual handling

Manual handling causes a significant proportion of all workplace injuries. These include work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as pain and injuries to arms, legs and joints, and repetitive strain injuries of various sorts.

The term manual handling covers a wide variety of activities including lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. If any of these tasks are not carried out appropriately there is a risk of injury.
Case study
A manufacturing company kept bulk chemicals stored in heavy tubs at floor or shoulder height. This meant that the operators were continually reaching down or up, both of which increase the risk of injury.

The solution
To address the risk, the company drew up guidelines on the storage of heavy loads to ensure they are now stored at waist height, which makes lifting and handling easier.

Why is dealing with manual handling important?

Manual handling injuries can have serious implications for the employer and the person who has been injured. They can occur almost anywhere in the workplace and heavy manual labour, awkward postures, repetitive movements of arms, legs and back or previous/existing injury can increase the risk.

What do employers and workers have to do?

To help prevent manual handling injuries in the workplace, they should avoid such tasks as far as possible. However, where it is not possible to avoid handling a load, employers must look at the risks of that task and put sensible control measures in place to prevent and avoid injury.

For any lifting activity

Always take into account:
  • individual capability;
  • the nature of the load;
  • environmental conditions;
  • training;
  • work organization.

If employers require workers to lift something manually every effort should be made to

  • Reduce the amount of twisting, stooping and reaching.
  • Avoid lifting from floor level or above shoulder height, especially heavy loads.
  • Adjust storage areas to minimize the need to carry out such movements.
  • Consider if the carrying distance can be minimized.
  • Assess the weight to be carried and whether the worker can move the load safely or needs any help – maybe the load can be broken down to smaller, lighter components.

If there is a need to use lifting equipment

  • Consider whether you can use a lifting aid, such as a forklift truck, electric or hand-powered hoist, or a conveyor.
  • Think about storage as part of the delivery process – maybe heavy items could be delivered directly, or closer, to the storage area.
  • Reduce carrying distances where possible.
Case study
A wholesale plant nursery dealt with very large plants and trees in pots. The plants were heavy, bulky and of varied sizes and shapes. Workers had reported severe back strain when handling these plants.

The solution

The company sourced a specialized barrow, which was adjustable to allow for moving different-shaped, large plants. The new barrow means just one person (rather than two) is needed to transport plants and workers report there is no longer a back strain issue.

Practical tips for good lifting technique

There are some simple things employers and workers could do before and during the lift/carry:

  • 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.
More information

Think before lifting/handling

Plan the lift. Can handling aids be used? Where is the load going to be placed? Will help be needed with the load? Remove obstructions such as discarded wrapping materials. For a long lift, consider resting the load midway on a table or bench to change grip.

Adopt a stable position

The feet should be apart with one leg slightly forward to maintain balance (alongside the load, if it is on the ground). Be prepared to move your feet during the lift to maintain stability. Avoid tight clothing or unsuitable footwear, which may make this difficult.

Get a good hold

Where possible, the load should be hugged as close as possible to the body. This may be better than gripping it tightly with hands only.

Start in a good posture

At the start of the lift, slight bending of the back, hips and knees is preferable to fully flexing the back (stooping) or fully flexing the hips and knees (squatting).

Don’t flex the back any further while lifting

This can happen if the legs begin to straighten before starting to raise the load.

Keep the load close to the waist

Keep the load close to the body for as long as possible while lifting. Keep the heaviest side of the load next to the body. If a close approach to the load is not possible, try to slide it towards the body before attempting to lift it.

Avoid twisting the back or leaning sideways, especially while your back is bent

Shoulders should be kept level and facing in the same direction as the hips. Turning by moving the feet is better than twisting and lifting at the same time. 

Keep your head up when handling
Look ahead, not down at the load, once it has been held securely.

Move smoothly

The load should not be jerked or snatched as this can make it harder to keep control and can increase the risk of injury.

Don’t lift or handle more than can be easily managed

There is a difference between what people can lift and what they can safely lift. If in doubt, seek advice or get help.

Put down, then adjust

If precise positioning of the load is necessary, put it down first, then slide it into the desired position.

Find out more

  1. Health and Safety Executive: Musculoskeletal disorders
  2. Manual handling at work: A brief guide
  3. Managing upper limb disorders in the workplace
  4. Napo in lighten the load