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Manual Handling Injuries and What You Can Do to Prevent Them


A worker holding his back in pain

According to the UK Labour Force Survey, manual handling injuries account for over one third of all workplace related injuries/illnesses. Although manual handling occurs in every work environment, for employees of certain industries manual handling is a necessary part of their daily workplace duties. As a result, these employees are more prone to manual handling injuries.

If managers and these employees collectively do not take responsibility and make use of measures to prevent manual handling injuries, accidents may happen, or they may develop disorders which will affect their health as well as affect their quality of life. Fortunately, if measures are put in place, the liklihood and risk of these accidents occurring can be reduced, ensuring that employees remain safe in the workplace and maintain their health. These measures include the practice of safe manual handling.

What is Manual Handling?

Manual handling is the carrying, transporting or manipulation of a load by an employee from one place to another. It involves a number of activities including pushing, pulling, carrying, throwing and lifting of loads.

Manual handling that is repetitive or requires force can cause damage to the musculoskeletal system (muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, bones, nerves and blood vessels), either suddenly or accumulatively over time due to the wear and tear of repetitive manual handling. This manual handling injury is named Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD).

Unsafe manual handling can lead to MSD injuries and accidents in 3 main areas:

  • The neck and upper limbs (shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist, fingers)
  • Lower limb (legs, knees, ankles)
  • Back pain and back injuries

Examples include muscle strains and sprains, injury to ligaments and discs in the back, injuries to soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons, nerves in the wrists, shoulders, arms, legs and chronic pain.

MSD can significantly affect a worker's ability and the functions they can perform at work or at home which will impact their quality of life. As a result MSD should be taken seriously and must be prevented by managing the risks and dangers associated with manual handling.

Risks Factors Which Affect Manual Handling

There are a number of factors which affect the risk of a manual handling injury occurring. The 4 main factors are the load (object), the work, the environment and the person.

The Load

By pushing, pulling, lifting and carrying a load you are exposing yourself to the risk of a manual handling injury. Here are factors you need to look out for:

1) Weight of the load: if an object is too heavy for a worker, it may be difficult for them to carry and this might cause an injury.

2) Characteristics of the load: objects that are awkward in shape are more difficult to grasp and may slip. Loads which contain liquids can shift their center of balance as the liquid moves around in the container and might topple over. Loads with sharp edges or corners could cause harm if they collide with other workers or other objects. Objects which are too large require the worker to hold them with a broader grip and as a result they aren't able to produce as much force to lift them.

3) Location of the load: If an object is placed in a difficult location to reach, this will affect the worker's ability to push, pull, lift and carry the item. For example, objects placed high up can be difficult to reach.

The Work

The nature of the worker's industry and the tasks they have to do can affect the risk of a manual handling injury occurring. For example, the manual handling risks to a worker on a construction or demolition site will usually be higher than in an office. Here are some risk factors related to the work tasks:

1) Duration and frequency of tasks: the number of times a load is handled and the length of time it is carried can increase the risk of injury. If a task is carried out over a long period of time or too frequently this can be very demanding to a worker if they are not given adequate rest and recovery time. Therefore tasks with repetitive movements and use of sustained force need to be carefully managed.

Examples of these tasks include: lifting and stacking goods on a pallet, picking up items from a conveyor belt, moving tables and chairs around according to various party sizes.

2) Awkward postures and Movements - This includes working in a fixed posture over an extended period of time, performing actions which are unnatural and being in positions that are unnatural.

For example, sitting at a desk in an un-ergonomic chair or crouching while performing maintenance work on machinery can be considered a sustained awkward posture. Twisting whilst picking items up from a conveyor belt for packing is an unnatural movement.

The Environment

The characteristics of the workplace environment has the following risks:

1) Layout of the Work Area: A poorly designed workspace could lead to workers having to resort to awkward postures and movements in order to perform their tasks, such as crouching to pick stock for an order or remaining seated when they should be standing.

Poor planning of the pathways and cramped areas can lead to potential collisions while carrying loads, and having to hold them awkwardly to accommodate the space constraints (e.g. lifting a load up and over an obstruction).

2) Heat and Cold: Exposure to high temperatures throughout the work day can lead to exhaustion of workers, which may lead to an injury while performing manual handling tasks. Similarly, cold temperatures can affect workers with carrying objects due to their grip being affected from the cold, as well as cold muscles being much more prone to injury when stretched.

The Person

The following characteristics of an individual employee can affect the risk of an injury occurring:

  • Their familiarity with the job and their experience with their work
  • Age
  • Physical fitness
  • Whether or not they use equipment to assist their manual handling activities

Preventing and Managing the Risks of Manual Handling Injuries

After becoming aware of the potential risks, here is what you can do to reduce or eliminate them completely:

  • Eliminate: is it possible to remove the task completely? is there another way to do the task?
  • Change the workplace: implement ergonomic furniture, add new mechanical aids such as trolleys
  • Change the nature of work: allow for breaks and change the duration of work periods
  • Provide training on safe manual handling

Using Safe Manual Handling

Some general guidelines for correct handling techniques:

Before lifting:
  • Plan your path, make sure it is free of obstacles
  • Make sure you have a firm grip on the object
  • Know your limitations. If the object is too awkward to grip properly or too heavy, seek assistance before lifting.

While Lifting:
  • Place your feet around the object and your body over it
  • Use the muscles in your leg while lifting
  • Maintain a straight back
  • Keep the load close to your body

Pushing and Pulling:
  • Push and pull by using your own body weight. Lean into/away from the object
  • Ensure that there is enough grip on the floor for you to lean into/away from the object
  • Avoid twisting and bending the back
  • Make sure floors are clear, level and are not slippery

By implementing these practices you should be able to reduce and prevent the vast majority of manual injuries in the workplace. With manual handling injuries being such a common occurrence that results in so many lost working hours, the importance of safe and correct manual handling techniques cannot be overstated. Suitable manual handling courses, especially those which are tailored and bespoke to the exact loads and daily tasks performed by employees, are an essential component of good health and safety practice.

Manual Handling Training Options

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