Manual Handling – Identifying Risks and Designing Them Out

Manual handling is part of all workplaces. Whether an employee is lifting goods, pushing trolleys, or pulling doors, it’s all part of the umbrella of manual handling.

Stacking shelves, working a conveyor line, picking items, entering data into a computer, or pulling pallets out of a stack are all examples of manual handling. Manual handling tasks may not be dangerous in and of themselves; however poorly designed or incorrectly executed tasks can cause harm to workers.

According to Safe Work Australia, workers made 43,555 claims related to injuries or disorders caused by incorrect or improper manual handling. 10% of all claims were made by labourers of some kind.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common complaint with workers performing manual handling tasks. This is still the leading work-related condition in Australia, despite decades of effort spent on eliminating risks and enhancing workplace safety and health.

An overview of Musculoskeletal disorders

MSDs are complaints, injuries, or diseases that affect bodily movement – that is, muscles and bones as well as cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints, and other tissue that connects muscles, bones, and organs together.  MSDs can occur through one of two ways. The first being a gradual build-up of wear and tear caused by repetitive movements. The second is through sudden and/or strenuous movements that may induce injury.

MSDs can include:

  • Sprains and strains of muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
  • Back injuries including damage to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, spinal discs, nerves, joints, and bones.
  • Joint and bone injuries or degeneration, including injuries to the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, ankle, hands, and feet.
  • Nerve injuries or compression (for example carpal tunnel syndrome).
  • Muscular and vascular disorders as a result of hand-arm vibration.
  • Soft tissue injuries such as hernias
  • Pain (both chronic and acute)

MSDs can be reduced by identifying hazardous manual tasks and designing problems out.

What is a hazardous manual task?

A hazardous manual task is an action in which one is asked to lift, lower, push, pull, carry, hold, or restrain an item or object.

These can involve but are not limited to repetitive movements; sustained force; sudden force; awkward postures that must be sustained; exposure to vibration or heat. These attributes are leading causes of MSDs in the workplace.

Risk assessment and “designing problems out”

Assessing risks is essential to reducing or eliminating hazards in manual tasks. Risk assessments help identify postures, movements, and forces that could potentially cause MSDs. Well-designed work areas and procedures, as well as attention paid to ergonomics in equipment can help eliminate risk factors associated with MSDs.

Once risks are assessed, these hazards and risks can be “designed out” before implemented in the workplace. Designers and manufacturers are bound by workplace health and safety laws to make sure their products and solutions do not pose a risk to health and safety to employees when in use. This also covers designing solutions that reduce or eliminate risk of developing MSDs.

There are many manual handling aids available that can help reduce the risk of a manual handling injury. Lifting equipment includes vacuum lifting equipment and spring pallet lifters.  Powered equipment can help reduce pushing and pulling injuries. These include wheelie bin tugs and powered pedestrian tuggers.

More information about hazardous manual tasks can be found in the Safe Work Australia model code of practice. [].