The term 'manual handling' refers to the process of an employee transporting or supporting something. This could mean lifting something, putting something down, pushing, pulling or carrying something – if something is being moved, then it is being manually handled.
The nature of how things can be moved means that it can involve risks in the form of injury to the employee, which is why is it such an important topic for employers to be aware of, and why risk assessments need to be carried out. Prioritising these issues can avoid any potential problems, keeping a fit and healthy workforce as a result.
Manual handling is an everyday task in most workplaces, whether you work in an office or a building yard. Whatever your job, there are things that have to be moved, lifted and carried each and every day. The importance of safe manual handling can therefore mean the difference between a productive day at work or being off with a bad back.
Awkward postures, poor lifting techniques, and failing to plan your route will all increase the risk of injury during manual handling tasks. Assessing these risks before they occur really can determine the health of your workforce, and consequently the overall health of your business.
Why are Risk Assessments Needed in Manual Handling?
The risks increase depending on the way a job is done just as much as type of load involved. There are certain characteristics that can result in something being seen as risk-prone when it comes to manual handling:
- The lifting of the load requires repeated manipulation of the load at a distance from the individual
- The lifting of the load requires repeated bending of the individual
- The load is large and difficult to grasp
- The handling repeatedly takes place at floor level or above shoulder height
- The physical effort can only be achieved by a twisting of the individual's body
- The load is carried over a long distance and there is poor organisation leading to an unsafe route with obstacles
The injuries that can come from these kinds of manual handling activities are primarily to the back. These repetitive actions, with twisting and bending being the greatest strain, can result in compression of the disc, or damage to the facet joint or ligaments.
It is for the severity of these injuries that means that workplace regulations need to be followed closely. These regulations, otherwise known as the Manual Handling Operations Regulations of 1992, govern the management of a hazard, and explain what employers need to be doing to avoid injuries in their teams.
The basic principle of the regulation is that if a manual handling activity could involve a risk of injury, then employers must take measures to avoid or reduce it. The employer needs to do this by implementing a manual handling risk assessment process and preventative measures based on the outcomes of a risk assessment.
By assessing the potential risks, they can then implement a safe system work plan for site-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.
This is a consistent matter that should be carried out by the employers too. Far from a quick fix to check off the list of things to do, risk assessments need to be written every time a new action needs to be carried out that could pose a risk to the staff members; risk assessments are therefore a regular addition to the working day.
Example Risk Assessment –
Risk assessments obviously vary between each business and each individual task in question, but below is a brief summary of a five-step risk assessment process that can be used to assess individual manual handling tasks.
Step 1: Task description
Collect information on how the task is carried out, identifying the key stages.
Step 2: Collect technical information
Information such as the weight of the load, physical measurements of it, postures observed during the activity, the amount of work space available, and the duration of the task.
Step 3: Identify the risk factors
This could be that the load is too heavy, it's being handled at an unsafe height and it causes the body to be in an uncomfortable posture. These risk factors all need to be supported with evidence.
Step 4: Identify the Improvements to be put in Place
This step requires clear communication with staff and a review of the information collected. The improvements put in place should avoid or at least reduce the risk of injury, and may include:
- Use of mechanical aids for all or part of the activity
- Reorganisation of work area or materials
- Where handling will still take place, instruction in safe lift techniques
- Development of a safe system of work plan
- Communication of improvements to staff
Step 5: Review the effectiveness of the improvements
This could involve simple checks or supervision to ensure that lifting techniques are being conducted in line with the instructions given, or that appropriate handling aids are being used.