Workplace Safety – Manual handling

Back injuries at work are the most frequent and some of the most severe injuries amongst workers in Australia.  Occupational back injuries account for a large number of workers’ compensation costs with more than 100,000 cases a year in Australia.  Once an injury happens, it can cause the worker much suffering and might also lead to a lifelong disability.

While back injuries can occur in any occupation in all industries, there are some industries where workers are at a higher risk. These include mining, construction, health industries, farms, factories, warehouses, manufacturing, transport and storage.  Manual handling is an important issue for all workers.

What causes back pain and injuries?  Manual handling covers much more than lifting or lowering an object.  It includes pushing, carrying, holding, lifting, and activities that involve awkward positions and repetitive actions.  Back injury can generally happen if your work requires difficult postures such as bending, twisting or overextending the body.  Other factors that contribute to back injuries and back pain include poor workplace conditions, improper handling technique, and lack of lifting equipment.

Studies indicate that there is a relation between musculoskeletal problems and physical workload during work.  Stress can influence the mechanical load through changes in posture, movement, and exerted forces; for example, time pressures can result in hurried movements with high accelerations and poor posture. Mental strain and monotony are also associated with back trouble.

High risk work practices

  • Handling awkward shapes or big loads.
  • Handling weights that are beyond the worker’s capacity.
  • Over-reaching position (lifting from below mid-thigh or above shoulder height).
  • Handling where the work surface is unstable.
  • Repetitive or long duration manual handling.
  • Carrying objects away from the body.
  • Awkward twisting of the body.
  • Obstructed pathways.
  • Insecure grip and poor lifting position with the feet too close together
Prevention of manual handling problems is best achieved by good workplace design and the use of mechanical lifting aids. If manual lifting is unavoidable, follow these principals to avoid back injury:
  • Consider your physical ability to handle the load.  If in doubt, get assistance.  Avoid lifting loads more than 16 – 20kg.
  • Place your feet close to the object and keep a balanced position. Bend the knees in a semi squat to a comfortable degree and get a good handhold.
  • Keep the natural curves in the spine while lifting.
  • Use your leg muscles to lift the load (prevent sudden accelerations or jerky movements, and don’t twist at the hips or shoulders during foot movement).
  • Set the load down by using your leg muscles, lower the load by bending your knees in a semi squat to a comfortable degree.
If you suffer from symptoms of back injury, seek medical treatment immediately. Describe your work task to the doctor, inform your employer and also the health and safety representative at work.  Early reporting allows the workplace to take action to prevent further complaints and can reduce the likelihood of long-term disability.