Manual handling is the process of an employee moving or supporting something. This could mean lifting something, putting something down, or pushing, pulling, and carrying something.
The nature of how loads are moved means that there are potential risks involved, predominantly in the form of injury to the employee, which is why it is such an important topic for employers to be aware of.
Not all manual handing is hazardous, but in some cases the employee may have to take on a considerable amount of handling such as lifting something heavy above shoulder height – this is when injuries can happen.
A third of all accidents reported to the Health and Safety Authorities are manual handling incidents, with half of these injuries occurring due to someone lifting or carrying a load. This means that one million people every year are affected, costing society £5.7 billion in the process. Not only are manual handling accidents a hindrance to the individual because of the inconvenience of being out of work, but it causes a massive drain on resources for the employers. They have to cover costs towards the days lost, a decrease in productivity, legal fees, and the cost of training or retraining.
The injuries that can come from these manual handling activities are primarily to the back. These repetitive actions that strain the individual over and over again can result in compression of the disc, facet joint or ligaments damage. Twisting and bending are two movements that are perhaps the greatest strain on the spine. Here are three examples of manual handling injuries in the workplace:
A 54-year-old library assistant was instructed to help move 80,000 books from one area of the library to another over a four-month period. She had to pack the books into boxes that would reach weights of 22kg each! She then had to load them onto trolleys and take them to the new destination.
The librarian hadn't been trained in manual handling techniques so developed back pain from the persistent heavy lifting. She told her manager about the pain and took three days off to rest. On returning to work she was told to carry on with moving the boxes.
The pain became so severe that her back seized up altogether, and despite seeking treatment to help her to manage the discomfort, she continued to suffer from chronic back pain which prevented her from working. Her employer didn't offer her alternative light duties so she was dismissed on grounds of medical incapability.
"I never had any problems with my back before lifting those boxes but now I have to adapt my life around managing the pain."
Irish farmer, Pat Maher, was working one day when he needed to move a pillar out of the way. He felt going to get the tractor to move it would have wasted time, so instead he set to move it himself.
He bent over without bending his legs, and as he tried to move it, his back suddenly started to get very hot and he felt sweat pour from him – he knew he had pushed himself too far this time.
It turns out he has pushed out the joint between the hip and the back bone, leaving him with excruciating pain. For years, Pat couldn't even take a few steps before feeling the inflammation of the back.
He still needs days of rest now, something that makes running a farm extra difficult. The nature of the work means that he needs to call out extra help for the more physically demanding jobs, as well as people to cover him when he needs days off – all causing a great financial impact on him to go alongside his physical pain.
Pat's advice to people now is to take a few seconds to ask yourself:
• How am I going to move this?
• Do I have to move it? Or can I get a machine to do it?
• If I have to do it, how exactly am I going to do it safely?
3. Kitchen worker
Tina Bowen, a kitchen worker at a school in Wales, was left in agony after repeatedly lifting sacks of potatoes onto a trolley.
The potato peeling machine in Tina's school kitchen had been broken for a long period of time. Because of this, she had to use a machine at a different school. This meant that she would manually lift the heavy sacks of potatoes onto a trolley and push them across a car park. Once they were peeled, she would then load the clean potatoes back onto the trolley and take them back to school to be cooked.
One particular day, Tina felt severe pain in her left shoulder. She was then off work for six months, during which time she lost vital earnings and struggled to complete even the most simple day-to-day tasks.
"I can barely describe how unbearable the pain in my shoulder was during those six months. My movement was so restricted that I could hardly even dress myself. I wish that the management had fixed the potato peeler earlier or provided me with a safe alternative; this could all have been avoided."
Manual handling is so manageable, that it means it can easily be avoided by following the Manual Handling Operations Regulations of 1992. These regulations can govern the management of a hazard in manual handling to stop employee injuries becoming a frequent occurrence.
The basic principle of the regulation is that if a manual handling activity could involve a risk of injury, the employer must take measures to avoid or reduce this risk. The employer needs to do this by implementing a manual handling risk assessment process and preventative measures based on the outcomes of the risk assessments.
They may do this by having a safe system of work plan for specific tasks, providing information on the use of mechanical aids, the reorganisation of a work activity to allow loads to be handled at a safe height, or instructions to workers on how to use handling aids or handle loads safely.