An essential safety theme for any organisation is how to reduce manual handling injuries. Poor manual handling leads to lower back pain, neck and shoulder strain, hernias, soft tissue injuries to hands and wrists, and chronic pain. The focus on this safety theme is immense; however, there are a large number of studies suggesting we are making very little difference in addressing the problem. In this article, we draw together the findings of these studies to provide a summary of the latest thinking around manual handling training and participatory ergonomics programmes.
What are the costs of manual handling injuries?
Manual handling is work where you have to lift, lower, push, pull, carry, move, hold or restrain any object. It becomes a problem that can lead to injury when the lifting is repetitive, requires an awkward posture or has a high resistance or where the load is unstable, unbalanced or hard to hold. Forces, postures, movements and vibration affect each other to increase the risk of a manual handling injury.
Addressing manual handling is a recurring safety theme because of the high costs to business to rehabilitate injured workers. According to Safe Work Australia’s Australian Workers Compensation Report for 2015-16, 45% of the total 104,770 serious claims for that year, were manual handling injuries. Manual handling injuries cost the Australian economy $28 billion every year. Male workers are most at risk, primarily when they work as labourers, machinery operators, drivers, and community and personal service workers.
How do we make manual handling a safety theme of the past?
WorkSafe Victoria offers some simple suggestions to reduce manual handling injuries:
- Eliminate the risk by removing the requirement to manually handle objects.
- Change the layout of the workplace, or the way work is carried out.
- Train employees on how to safely manually handle objects.
Eliminating the risk
One way to reduce manual handling injuries is to remove the need to lift or move any object. Automation and mechanical aids can help here. Although it is unlikely that an organisation can eliminate the manual handling of objects, they can:
- Change the task – ask ‘Does this task need to be carried out? If so, does it have to be done this way?’
- Change the object – for example, repack a large, heavy load into smaller parcels.
Changing the way we work
Manual handling injuries can be reduced by changing the layout of the workplace or lifting and moving objects using mechanical aids. There is some evidence that introducing ergonomic interventions not only reduces injuries but also achieves productivity improvements. Companies can minimise unnecessary load handling, waiting and transportation and reduce manufacturing time. Changes to the way we work may include:
- Changing the workspace – for example, use ergonomic furniture and make sure workbenches are at optimum heights to limit bending or stretching
- Altering the environmental conditions – including heat, cold and vibration
- Using mechanical aids – such as wheelbarrows, conveyor belts, cranes or forklifts
- Changing the nature of the work – for example, offer frequent breaks or rotate tasks.
Training on safe manual handling techniques
Employers are required to train their employees, where relevant, with specific instruction on manual handling injury risks and prevention measures. Employees and management need to understand ergonomic concepts and techniques. However, across organisations, the type of training offered varies. The training may be delivered in the classroom or as a workshop, training around specific tasks, such as packing stock. In most toolbox training sessions, for example, manual handling in some form or another is a central safety theme.
The results of research conducted over the last three decades on the effectiveness of ergonomic training programmes to reduce manual handling injuries are mixed. Ten studies conducted before 2004 showed that participatory ergonomics programmes failed to make an impact. Between 2004 and 2006, 12 studies only showed partial to moderate evidence that they have a positive effect on musculoskeletal symptoms, reducing injuries, and workers’ compensation claims. The biggest blocker to improvement is a lack of support of ergonomics programmes by senior management. See our post on Safe Manual Handling: Have We Got it Wrong?
In general, research shows that manual handling training is largely ineffective in reducing back pain and back injury. There is considerable evidence that workers fail to implement the principles learnt during training in the working environment. Research conducted in small construction firms found that while worker knowledge improved and changes to work practices and tools occurred, there were no changes in musculoskeletal symptoms or reduced physical effort.
Training delivery methods to support the safety theme
Training delivery methods affect the outcome. The effectiveness of the training often depends on the way we teach, the organisation setting and type of training technique that we use. The best way to provide engaging training and increase participation is to utilise online and video delivery methods. See our post on warehouse hazards and safe lifting operations.
There are three reasons why classroom or workshop training fails to achieve results and these include:
- Workers will revert to previous habits because the training is a one-off and not regularly reinforced;
- In emergencies or the unusual case, a sudden quick movement, increased body weight or reduced physical well-being may overly strain the body; and
- If the job requirements are stressful, modifying behaviour will not eliminate the risk.
How can Tap Into Safety help?
The Tap Into Safety Platform provides interactive training using virtual environments, gamification and animated videos. The training is delivered online and on smart devices. You can include it in your company’s safety induction or safety training regimes.
We have a considerable library of ‘out-of-the-box’ training modules for high-risk industries including, construction, civil construction, mining, warehousing, transport, offices and service providers. Almost all training modules include content on manual handling. But the difference is we build the training around the context of a specific industry setting.
Manual handling activities vary widely between industry, for example, manual handling on a construction site entails shovelling of materials, whereas manual handling in an office may require the lifting of boxes. Regular training around these variances is essential to embed the knowledge of safe lifting techniques and ensure it flows into practice.
Whenever possible, we encourage the use of mechanical aids and improvements to workflows to reduce the need to conduct manual handling activities. In doing so, we look forward to a reduction in injuries.
We’re all looking on ways to reduce manual handling injuries and hence it is a top safety theme for many organisations. The problem is, although we actively train in safe manual handling and we provide participatory ergonomics programmes, we fail in the training delivery. Organisations continue to train in classroom and workshop settings with little or no refresher or reinforcement of the learning. They use training techniques that are not engaging or related to the work we ask our employees to do. Safety practitioners often lack support from senior management to provide ongoing training. However, changes need to be made to address this top safety theme, or we will continue to have 45% of workplace injuries occurring through poor manual handling.