Manual handling training: Is it worth it?

To train in manual handling or not, that is the question

Back in 2011, an employee at UK PizzaExpress was left a quadriplegic following a fall. The worker, along with a three other employees, was lifting a 168 kg cupboard up a narrow stair case.

During the heavy lifting task, the cupboard became stuck on a landing, close to the first floor window. While trying to move it, the employee fell backwards through the window and onto the pavement below.

Now imagine you are writing a risk assessment for a manual handling task similar to the one that left the PizzaExpress employee seriously injured. You have identified that strain from high force, awkward handling and team lifting are involved and concluded that extra controls are needed to ensure effective health, safety and wellbeing at work.

Health, safety and wellbeing should be the number one priority, not compliance.

The staff concerned haven't been trained in manual tasks, so with a smile you write "provide manual handling training" in the column. Job done, right? Wrong.

Manual handling training in many respects is a bad idea, but not for the reasons you may believe. So why should you look past this well-worn form of strain risk prevention training and how can you ensure you have a strong health and safety environment?

What is manual handling training?

In the workplace, there are often heavy or awkward objects to be moved to keep work processes moving. Manual handling is best defined as any action when an individual lifts, lowers, pushes, pulls, carries or otherwise handle any object, either animate or inanimate. For instance:

Manual handling plays out in a number of ways depending on where you are and what industry you are working in. This includes a wide range of activities, such as:

  • Packing groceries in a supermarket
  • Lifting boxes onto a pallet
  • Repetitive handling of light or heavier objects
  • Lifting building materials during construction
  • Using hand and power tools
  • Handling hospital patients.

There are a huge range of injury risks associated with manual handling. These are technically called musculoskeletal injuries (meaning injuries of the muscles and joints). Often we simply call them "strain injuries". They include:

  • Serious back injuries like spinal disc rupture and sciatica
  • Repetitive strain disorders, such as occupational overuse syndrome
  • Sprains and strains of muscles or tendons
  • Plus slips, trips and falls while handling objects (like the incident above)

In fact across Australia and New Zealand 40-50 per cent of all injuries at work are musculoskeletal. In response to such a high incidence of this one injury category organisations usually look to manual handling training as the main solution. It seems like a no brainer to ensure workers at risk of strains are taught how to lift and handle things at work. But there are several major problems with the effectiveness of this kind of training.

Bending and twisting can be a problem.Bending and twisting can be a problem.

The fallacy of manual handling training

A systematic research review prepared by the Work and Health Research Centre for the UK government casts severe doubt on the worth of training people to handle things safely. After an extensive review of over 150 research papers, the research found there was no conclusive evidence that supports the effectiveness of manual handling training. The researchers found there is considerable evidence  the principles learnt during training are not applied to the working environment. Australian workplaces are filled with countless well-meaning guidelines, rules and procedures that govern how people should move objects.

Safe Work Australia, the independent Commonwealth Government agency, in 2011 published the Code of Practice for Hazardous Manual Tasks states clearly that "training in lifting techniques must not be used as the sole or primary means to control the risk of musculoskeletal disorders".

Now the facts are clear: manual handling training is ineffective on its own as a risk control for strain injuries at work. So, what do organisations need to do to reduce manual handling injuries?

Manual handling training can be a waste of time.

Control the risk not the person

Firstly, risk assess the range of manual tasks involved in the work and prioritise the highest risk ones for intervention. A simple guide to assessing the risk level is the more the risk factors and the more severe they are, the higher the risk. The key risk factors to think about with manual handling are:

  • Repetitive movement
  • Sustained or awkward postures
  • Repetitive or sustained forces
  • Long duration (over 30 minutes constantly or over 2 hours in the shift)
  • High or sudden force (typically 15kg of force or more)
  • Vibration.

Secondly, eliminate or control the handling. Many manual handling tasks can be avoided and the Code of Practice for Hazardous Manual Tasks has 14 easy to read pages devoted to effectively reducing manual task risks. These include:

  • Purchasing to eliminate or minimise risks
  • Changing the design or layout of work areas
  • Changing the nature, size, weight or number of items handled
  • Using mechanical aids (such as trolleys, hoists, mobile equipment)
  • Changing the system of work (such as the pace of work or job rotation)
  • Changing the environment (e.g. floor surfaces, lighting, heat, cold, vibration).

Where training can be highly effective in reducing manual handling risks is by teaching people how to best use the equipment, or workflow changes or other risk reduction improvements made.

To review and prioritise your workplace's manual handling risks and to identify effective control measures, IPM Consulting has a highly experienced and practical team at your service. Call us today to address your manual handling issues and strain injury risks.

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