How can the risk of manual handling injury be reduced?
Manual handling injuries accounts for some 40 percent of reportable injuries, most of which impact on the lower back. Effects can be immediate or develop into longer term chronic problems. The main causes are moving loads that are too heavy, failing to grip the load safely or use a proper technique, and not wearing correct PPE (personal protective equipment). Not all such injuries result from lifting heavy loads. Many WRULDs (Work Related Upper Limb Disorders) are commonly associated with repetitive work on production lines, computers and supermarket check-outs.
Where possible the need for handling should be avoided, by changing work routines or by increasing mechanisation. Where this is not possible, risk assessments are based on four key factors; task, individual, load and environment. (The mnemonic ‘TILE’ may help.)
The task may be repetitive, or allow insufficient rest time, particularly if the work rate is imposed by a process. It may include twisting, stooping, pushing, pulling, a tendency for load to be held away from the trunk, upward reaching, or long carrying distances.
Analysis and assessment may reveal beneficial changes in work routine to reduce repetition or improve the sequencing of tasks. More frequent breaks, job rotation and use of teams to share the load are all strategies worth considering.
The type of individual performing the task is of key importance, in particular their age, build, sex and strength. A person’s general health and fitness is also a significant factor. Anyone who is overweight, underweight, or pregnant may be unsuitable for a given task. Similarly, sufferers of such conditions as asthma, arthritis or heart disease merit particular attention. Whilst these are examples only, medical checks and advice should be sought if any doubt remains as to a person’s suitability to undertake tasks safely.
Suitable PPE should be provided as a final resort, if other risk reduction measures are not deemed suitable or appropriate.
As ever the need for relevant information, instruction, training and supervision is of pivotal importance to all tasks involving manual handling operations. There are recognised lifting techniques that should be observed by all workers at all times.
Whilst there is no safe weight, the risk of back injury increases with the weight of the load. Consideration should also be given to whether the load is difficult to grasp, bulky or unwieldy, loose, unstable, unpredictable or intrinsically harmful (i.e. hot, sharp, or containing a hazardous product.
Where possible, the load should be split to enable easier handling. It should be rigid and handles or lifting slots will make it easier to grip. When packing, care should be taken to distribute the load evenly and ensure that contents do not shift. External markings should identify the contents.
In this context, the environment refers to the immediate surroundings in which the handling occurs, including the temperature, humidity, amount of lighting and any constraints on movement or posture. The type and condition of floors and other working surfaces should be considered and any variation in levels. When handling takes place outside, weather conditions such as strong gusts of wind or icy patches should be noted.
Workstations should be ergonomically designed, to allow good posture, and make access to the load / any associated equipment as easy as possible whilst allowing for individual variations in movement. Floors should be free of obstructions, bumps, holes and loose materials. High standards of repairs, maintenance and general housekeeping should be applied. As far as possible, work should be confined to a single level. Lighting should be sufficient to allow the task to be undertaken safely and heating / ventilation should be appropriate to allow staff reasonable comfort.
Risk assessments of all manual handling tasks should be carried out and the findings acted upon.