No matter what market sector or type of organisation they work in, many employees face manual handling tasks on a daily basis, as do people going about their ordinary lives. If manual handling tasks are performed incorrectly, they lead to a huge amount of distress and pain to individuals and can result in massive disruption to both the workplace and home life, sometimes on a lifelong basis.
While not necessarily responsible for all manual handling injuries, the workplace is likely to be directly affected by them in terms of employee sickness, absence from work, time off for the treatment of injuries, and staff working below their optimal level of competency. Employers may also face possible fines and court cases, with a potential detrimental effect on their reputation.
Outside of work, simple chores such as wrongly lifting heavy luggage when going on holiday, or laying paving stones in the garden, can lead to injury and pain, but tasks such as these are often performed without forethought even though they can impact home life in a big way, such as people being unable to drive, do the shopping or take the kids to school.
Manual handling is not simply lifting and carrying. Pushing, pulling, moving, lowering or restraining objects or persons, using bodily force to pull a lever, and operating power tools, are all covered by the term, which can also include simple walking up and down stairs carrying something.
Facts and figures
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common cause of occupational ill-health, affecting one million people per year and costing society £5.7 billion a year, according to the TUC. Lower back injuries are the most frequent, suffered by 300,000 people a year, but other muscle groups, limbs, tendons and joints are involved in manual handling and may also be affected. In fact, more than a third of injuries of over three days' duration reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) involve manual handling. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as many more injuries go unreported, including those that occur outside of working hours, such as from DIY, responsible for over 200,000 injuries a year, bad posture, perhaps resulting from incorrect chair height in front of the home computer, gardening, and sports injuries such as from playing rugby, football, golf or tennis.
Importance of training
Despite these appalling statistics, a third of companies do not provide manual handling training to their employees when they start their employment, according to Julian Roberts, managing director of Safety Media, a company that launched a dedicated manual handling website in October last year. Since its launch, the site has received over 6,700 visitors and has clocked up 20,450 page views, demonstrating the level of concern over the safety of manual handling. "We recommend that training should be undertaken at the start of the role, so that incidents dont happen in the early stages of employment, and that the training should be reviewed regularly," says Roberts.
Legislation and duties
A plethora of legislation governs manual handling, chiefly the Manual Handling Regulations 1992, but it is also covered by the HSWA 1974, the Management Regulations 1999, PUWER 1998, RIDDOR 1995, and the Workplace Regulations 1992. The employer should steer clear of the need for manual handling wherever possible to minimise the risk of injury to workers. If manual handling activities are unavoidable, they should conduct risk assessments to identify potential hazards, looking at the task, who is doing it, how often it is done, the type of load and the environment it is undertaken in.
Employees for their part should help themselves to avoid manual handling injuries by using good lifting techniques, following safe systems of work, using any safety equipment provided, and informing their employer of any identified hazards. They should avoid putting others at risk and also try to avoid injuries outside of work.
Safety Media's website offers a free online audit of current manual handling procedures, the results of which show that employees had to undertake tasks which required repetitive twisting, stooping or reaching by in 78 per cent of companies, yet only 65 per cent completed risk assessments for all manual handling activities. "It is a legal requirement to assess the risks of manual handling tasks, says Roberts, and the results should then be communicated to your employees so they can act accordingly."
So what should employers be doing to improve the prevention of manual handling injuries? Careful thought should be given before undertaking any manual handling activity, wherever it takes place. Training in correct manual handling procedures is vital, and relevant for both work and home life - any training received in the workplace should be applied at home too, where equipment instructions should always be followed, and good practice followed.
E-learning is an excellent, cost-effective way of training large numbers of staff in correct manual handling, and this can be augmented by the use of targeted DVDs, interactive CDROMS, and relevant software.
The use of forethought is also important, in considering whether moving something is really necessary. Could some tasks be automated? Could handling aids be used? These need to be thought about before manual handling of any kind is attempted.
"According to our audit, 31 per cent of employees were at significant risk of injury from carrying out manual handling activities. Controls must be put in place to reduce the risk of injury," Roberts urges. "Ninety per cent of those who took the audit said they did have lifting aids available to assist staff when manually lifting loads, although only 82 per cent had provided their employees with training on how to use them, but there is no point in having lifting aids if they are not used," he adds.
The importance of correct manual handling, both at home and at work, cannot be underestimated, and simple steps can be taken to review arrangements to avoid the suffering caused by manual handling injuries. The law is very clear and there is much guidance, help and information available, so there is no excuse for ignoring manual handling issues. This is even more important in the current economic downturn, where cutbacks could lead to more inadequately risk-assessed maintenance tasks being carried out by untrained employees.
Roberts concludes: "Organisations must provide a safe working environment for their employees to undertake manual handling activities. They should provide suitable training and encourage their employees to openly discuss with management any issues they may have with tasks they have to perform."