Work still relies on muscle power to make and move materials. That requires workers to lift, pull or push materials or to use basic materials handling aids, such as trolleys, to help handle and transport heavy loads.
These manual handling actions continue in most workplaces day in-day out without any problems until the extent of lifting, pulling or pushing exceeds a worker’s capacity to do the work. This may result in a range of serious and potentially permanent injuries.
Called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), these are injuries to the skeleton, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and joints that support and bind tissues and organs together so the body can move and sustain itself.
MSDs are the most common injury at work. They cost the economy dearly in lost productivity and high workers compensation costs. This is despite known and accessible methods to prevent or minimise risk of injury.
The sources of risk are well known. They are poorly planned work processes, unsafe workplace layout and tasks done unsafely.
There is nothing inherently wrong with relying on lifting, pulling or pushing to do work. Many tasks still cannot be done any other way even with advances in some industries to automate much heavy and repetitive manual work.
Problems occur when the work reaches a point where the worker struggles to do the task. The reason for this is the work involves one of these risk factors:
The presence of risk factors in lifting, pulling or pushing makes the task “hazardous”. This term is used in workplace safety law that applies to every Australian workplace. It means there is a likelihood of injury and the employer has a legal duty to do something about it or they are potentially breaking the law.
The risk factors create stress in the body. Body stress can damage muscles, tendons, ligaments, spine, nerves, joints and bones; cause joint and bone injuries or degeneration, harm shoulder, hips and limbs, cause nerve damage or tissue compression, harm the vascular system and tear soft issues that cause disorders such as hernias.
Even applying a low amount of force during repetitive lifting, pulling or pushing may cause injury. Repeated or continuous use of the same body parts to that work can cause gradual wear that slowly increases the risk.
The recommended way to manage risk from lifting, pulling or pushing is a process businesses use to manage any risk – a risk assessment. In OHS terms this means looking at postures, movements and forces for each task that might pose a risk and then determine at what point they may become “unsafe”. The “hazardous point” might simply be a worker reporting “discomfort” from performing that particular task or the pace of the work is unreasonably fast and is becoming strenuous and fatiguing.
The basic question employers need to ask is what is happening and what needs to be fixed?
This requires a team effort. Workplace safety law requires employers to be aware of such potential problems. They are required to talk to workers about any safety problem and listen to those who raise any concerns about the safety of that work. If any of the risk factors can be identified in the work, then it is likely to be hazardous.
Often the solution is a collective one. Such a discussion may make a detailed risk assessment unnecessary, if the risk is known and the solution obvious eg upgrade old trolleys to a more ergonomic design to make them easier to push.
If a detailed risk assessment is required, this will determine the extent of the problem and help determine how much needs to be done to avoid injury or at least minimise the risk as much as possible. A well-designed work area, improved work procedures, ergonomically designed tools and equipment will help eliminate or reduce risk factors associated with hazardous manual tasks.
The best and most cost effective way to manage the risk is not to have it in the workplace in the first place by “designing it out”. This requires re-designing the workplace layout to avoid manual handling risk. If the workplace can’t be changed, the same planning can be applied to re-designing the actual work processes to minimise hazardous lifting, pulling or pushing tasks.
If the solution is to invest in the latest labour saving devices employers need to be sure that products provided by manufacturers, importers or suppliers are verified as safe and are used for the purpose for which they are intended, or new hazards might be introduced into the workplace.