Manual material handling (MMH) ranks as one of the most common causes of workplace fatigue and low back pain or injury. Statistically, about one third of all lost work and even more compensation claims are a result of back injuries on the job. It’s an important occupational health and safety issue that has to be addressed on an ongoing basis.
MMH occurs when workers move or handle items by lifting, lowering, carrying, pulling or pushing. This is opposed to mechanical materials handling which involves the use of lift trucks, hoists, conveyors or cranes. Even when lifting or moving moderately heavy items, workers can be exposed to risk based on repetition and the pace of the work being undertaken. As fatigue sets in over time, muscles have less chance to recover, leading to immediate discomfort and the real potential for a more serious injury. Longer term or chronic injuries occur when the tendons, ligaments or vertebrae in the back become damaged, leading to a longer recovery period and the potential for lifelong pain.
Regulations & Responsibilities
The Occupational Health & Safety Act provides regulatory standards for a wide variety of work related tasks, including manual tasks such as lifting. It is every employer’s responsibility to understand these rules and to ensure consistent compliance.
It is also important to assess the potential risks of worker injury through MMH, and to put measures into place that will help to minimize these hazards. Some elements to consider would include:
- The weight of loads & if they can be modified
- Frequency of lifting & related movement
- The physical capability of a worker including age & overall physical condition
- Environmental conditions
- Personal protective equipment
- Positional aspects of lifting & if design can make more ergonomically friendly
- The potential for utilizing mechanical lifts in place of manual handling
- Occupational engineering to minimize or eliminate the need for manual handling
Addressing MMH directly should be an important part of any workplace health & safety program. Be sure to include written procedures, ongoing training and incident reporting.
Lift with your legs! We’ve probably all heard it a thousand times and are likely to simply tune it out at this stage. It does have a basis in truth though, and should be heeded along with these other safety tips.
All workers should be trained in proper lifting techniques to help minimize the chances of an injury. Correct lifting principles include:
- Bend from the knees and hips – keep the head up and the back straight
- Lift smoothly & slowly
- Keep feet shoulder width apart
- Pivot with the feet to avoid twisting
- Keep elbows and the item being lifted close to the body
- Be sure to limit the overall weight of loads being lifted (even once) to something that is within the easy capability of the worker
- Never attempt to lift or move objects that are clearly too heavy. Ask a co-worker for help or use a mechanical lifting device. Don’t be a hero.
- Ergonomically, the preferred range for lifting is between knee and waist height. The risk of back injury goes up with anything beyond that.
- Avoid lifting overly bulky or awkwardly shaped items that can cause an improper lifting posture or a blocked view of where you’re walking
- The frequency of lifts, repetitive motions and worker fatigue are big contributors to workplace injuries. Be sure to have workers take sufficient breaks throughout shifts, to allow muscles to recover.
- Where possible, limit the distances that heavy items need to be lifted or moved
- Mechanically, pushing rather than pulling a load is less likely to cause worker injury
- Be sure to account for any personal protective equipment that might affect how you are able to lift items
- Temperature and humidity can also affect the body and the potential for injury. Too hot and humid, and the muscles may become too loose with an increased rate of fatigue. Too cold, and the muscles may to too stiff.
- A poorly laid-out or overcrowded work environment can increase the risk of injury by forcing workers to lift and move awkwardly with unnecessary bending or stretching. Be sure to consider the mechanics of worker movement when planning any workspace.
- Good housekeeping and maintenance of walking surfaces is also an important step (no pun intended). Uneven surfaces, wet or cluttered floors and poor lighting can all lead to slips and falls while moving heavy objects.
- The jury is out on the use of supportive back belts at work. Some swear by them, while others claim that they can actually make your back weaker as you develop a reliance on the provided support. Research does show that they are good if a back injury or weakness already exists. Check with your occupational health & safety consultant for recommendations and guidance.
Back injuries resulting from manual material handling can be painful, long lasting and costly. Workplaces can help to avoid them by putting policies and procedures into place that actively work to minimize the risk