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We all know the important role risk assessments play in protecting our employees and ensuring regulatory compliance, especially when carrying out manual handling activities. So, in this blog post, we’re exploring the factors involved in a thorough and effective manual handling risk assessment, offering in-depth insights and actionable strategies to help you minimise potential hazards and create a workplace ethos that prioritises safety and mental and physical wellbeing.

In this blog post, we’re focusing on how you can reduce risks associated with the “task”. Stay tuned for future blog posts, where we’ll be discussing how directing your attention to the “individual”, “load”, and “environment” in turn can create safer manual handling processes for your team.

Task Layout and Ergonomic Considerations

A critical element of risk reduction is the layout of tasks. A layout that allows good musculoskeletal practices can substantially mitigate the risk of injury.

In practice, this might mean streamlining the flow of materials, improving storage positions, and eliminating unnecessary movements, all to create an environment that minimises awkward postures and reduces the need for lifting over longer distances.

Manual Handling

Proximity Matters: A Closer Look at Handling Techniques

  • The distance between the body and the load is a crucial factor that can significantly influence the risk of injury. This is because the further the distance between the load and the body, the more extreme the stress that is exerted on the lower back. For example, holding a load at arm’s length causes five times the amount of strain than it would if carried close to the body. Therefore, lifting close to the body will significantly reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries, especially in the lower back. Encouraging handlers to hug the load close to their bodies can improve stability, control, and overall safety.
  • Workers should also be encouraged to pull or slide the load towards them before lifting rather than moving it close to their body after the lift is complete.
  • Depending on the nature of the load, consider providing protective clothing, as friction can cause injury when lifting.
  • Foot placement is also crucial to ensure a smooth, safe lift, as injuries to the feet can be extremely painful and impact daily tasks.

Navigating Twists, Stooping, and Stretching

  • Tasks involving trunk (back/torso) twists, stooping, or stretching pose unique challenges, as these movements can significantly contribute to lower back stress and the issues this can cause, so it’s essential to do what you can to mitigate the impact of these tasks on the body.
  • Mitigating these challenges should involve adjusting the layout of tasks and promoting proper handling techniques.
  • While one-handed handling may unevenly load the spine and potentially encourage twisting, it is deemed suitable for specific loads. In instances where loads are exceptionally light, for example, the risk remains minimal.
  • Ideally, handlers should approach the load squarely, facing the intended direction of movement, in order to minimise any twisting motions. If this proves impractical, lifting should occur while facing the load, with subsequent changes in direction executed by moving the body with the feet rather than twisting the torso during the lift.
  • Stretching the arms above shoulder level also imposes additional stress on the arms and back, making load control more challenging.
  • With postures where the hands are positioned above the shoulders, except for upward pushes utilising strong leg muscles or downward pulls aided by body weight, there tends to be a weakness and consequent fatigue. Lifting above shoulder height with outstretched arms can be notably challenging, for example, when retrieving items from the back of a high shelf.
  • It is advisable to avoid lifts that start or end above head height whenever possible. Introducing aids to support loads or using tools that enable elevation above shoulder height should be considered.

Managing Heights and Distances: Above and Below

  • Lifting above shoulder height, extensive carrying, and lifting or lowering loads over longer distances all present distinct challenges.
  • The extent to which a load is raised or lowered holds significance, with more considerable distances posing considerably more physical demands than shorter ones. Moreover, lifting or lowering over substantial distances typically necessitates a change of grip around chest height. This alteration diminishes the handler’s control over the load, heightening the risk of injury. It is advisable to steer clear of lifts that start below floor level whenever feasible. Employers should opt to redesign such tasks entirely.
  • In scenarios where modification proves unfeasible, it is recommended to promote handling techniques that leverage the leg muscles rather than the comparatively weaker muscles of the back. This applies as long as the load remains small enough to be held in close proximity to the body.
  • If a load can be safely lifted and lowered, it can typically be carried without 3jeopardising back safety. However, if a load is transported over an excessive distance, the physical stress it causes will be more prolonged, resulting in fatigue and an elevated risk of injury. To provide a rough benchmark, if a load is carried beyond approximately 10 metres, the demands on the heart and lungs and the muscle fatigue associated with carrying it become the primary limiting factors, rather than the strength required for lifting and lowering.

Strategies for Pushing, Pulling, and Team Handling

  • The introduction of pushing and pulling in the workplace often serves as a means to reduce the exertion associated with manual handling. Loading goods onto conveyors, trolleys, or roll cages is an effective strategy for reducing the need for extensive carrying.
  • However, while pushing or pulling activities generally enable the safe handling of larger loads, it is essential to acknowledge their potential for harm. Pushing or pulling items lacking wheels, such as furniture or bales of wool, tends to be more demanding than handling wheeled items. Injuries resulting from pushing and pulling activities predominantly impact the back, neck, and shoulders, with incidents of trapping hands and other body parts being common. Discourage frequent starting, stopping, and abrupt manoeuvres, as well as the application of high sustained forces.
  • Team handling can be an effective strategy to counter the risks of excessive carrying, pushing, and pulling since it makes it easier to move loads that would be impossible for a lone worker to handle safely while also mitigating the risks placed on each team member by sharing the effort across more muscle power!
  • However, successful implementation of team handling requires in-depth planning and coordination, as well as consideration of the ground/floor surface on which you’re moving the load around. Every team member must be clear on their designated roles, especially as the size of the team grows.
  • Teams exceeding four members are less likely to function seamlessly unless managed extremely carefully.
  • The capability of the weakest team member serves as a limiting factor, notably in two-person teams. Consequently, the safe handling capacity of a team may be less than the cumulative loads that individual team members could manage when working alone.
  • Nonetheless, team handling is a valuable strategy to consider when implementing risk prevention strategies.

The Importance of Taking Work Routines into Account

Frequent or prolonged physical effort, insufficient rest periods, and inflexible work rates can all contribute towards fatigue and thus increase the risk of injuries. To counteract these issues, employers can:

  1. Implement job rotation to ensure that workers are able to take breaks and recover from the strenuous nature of handling tasks.
  2. Maintain reasonable workloads to prevent both physical and mental exhaustion, thereby reducing the risk of injury.
  3. Promote a culture of teamwork to raise morale8 and ensure that workers look out for each other’s safety.
  4. Provide manual handling training that covers all bases and ensures workers are properly educated on how to remain safe at work.

At OFI, we provide a portfolio of manual handling courses to help you cultivate a safe work environment and ensure your staff’s well-being. Some of the courses we offer cover:

Seated Handling and Sudden Movements: Special Considerations

  • Handling loads while seated introduces significant limitations as the leg muscles and the body’s weight for counterbalance cannot be effectively utilised.
  • Most of the workload is relegated to the less powerful muscles of the arms and upper body, resulting in a reduced capacity for handling heavier loads.
  • Additionally, being in a seated position constrains the handler’s ability to move the load extensively.
  • To mitigate the strain on the spine during lifting and minimise undesirable movements, seats with appropriate backrests are recommended. Seats with swivels can also support workers since they allow tasks to be designed so that loads are always handled in front of the body instead of to the side.
  • It’s crucial to carefully assess the suitability of armrests, as they might impede movement.
  • When setting up workstations, you should also remember to choose suitable chairs and work surfaces that can be adjusted to a safe height for each employee.

In Summary: Improving the Safety of Your Manual Handling Tasks

Manual handling is an integral part of so many of our working practices, so we must do what we can to make sure our employees stay safe and comfortable while carrying out their work. From educating and encouraging workers to utilise best practices to organising thorough and effective risk assessments, you can do plenty to keep your team safe and improve your business’ productivity levels.

Still trying to figure out where to start? Remember to get in touch for personalised consultancy services – we’ve been in the business for almost 40 years.

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