How to minimize the risks of material handling

You are currently viewing How to minimize the risks of material handling

Steps to lessen the risks of manual material handling

Manual material handling occurs in just about every job function, from office worker, supervisor, retail worker, construction worker and more. NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) has estimated that 33-50 percent of occupational injuries involve overexertion – either improperly handling materials, or handling and lifting objects that are too heavy.

Manual material handling tasks

Manual material handling is defined as the unaided moving of objects, whether lifting, lowering, carrying, bending, twisting, pushing/pulling, twisting or reaching. Improperly performing any of these tasks, or if they involve excessive weights and forces, can result in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

MSDs are injuries and conditions that affect muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints or spinal discs. These often include lower back pain, bulging/ruptured discs, bursitis, muscle strain or ligament/tendon sprain.

Related: Workplace Safety Incentives: Stop Accidents Before They Start

A quick physiology lesson

The back works like a lever, with the primary fulcrum of the lever located in the lower back. Lifting only with the back moves the load further away from the fulcrum, increasing the pressure on discs in the lower back. However, lifting with the legs moves the load closer to the fulcrum, reducing lower back pressure, thereby reducing the risk of injury and increasing the weight that can be lifted safely.

Handling less than 40 pounds does not usually produce severe sprain or strain. However, some studies have found that even lifting 35 pounds close to the body may be hazardous for some people. Forward bending is a significant risk factor. Bending 45-degrees or more gives about a 20 to 50 times increased risk for spinal displacement.

Why improve your workplace handling methods

Manual material handling exposes workers to physical motions that can lead to injuries, wasted energy and wasted time. To avoid these problems, your organization can directly benefit from improving the fit between the job demands and your employees’ capabilities. Because workers’ abilities to perform certain work tasks will vary with differences in age, physical condition, strength, gender and stature, you need to take all of these into account. Improvements to your procedures, training and workplace can benefit your establishment by

  • Reducing or preventing injuries
  • Using proper techniques to decrease forces in lifting, handling, pushing and pulling materials
  • Reducing risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders
  • Increasing productivity and worker morale
  • Lowering costs by reducing or eliminating:
    • Production bottlenecks
    • Use of medical services due to injury
    • Workers’ compensation claims
    • Excessive worker turnover, absenteeism and retraining
Related: 5 tools to prevent workplace fall hazards

Precautions to take when moving materials manually

When moving materials manually, workers should attach handles or holders to loads. They should always wear appropriate personal protective equipment and use proper lifting techniques. To prevent injury from oversize loads, workers should seek help in the following:

  • When a load is so bulky that employees cannot properly grasp or lift it
  • When employees cannot see around or over a load
  • When employees cannot safely handle a load

Using the following personal protective equipment prevents needless injuries when manually moving materials:

  • Hand and forearm protection, such as gloves, for loads with sharp or rough edges
  • Eye protection
  • Steel-toed safety shoes or boots
  • Metal, fiber, or plastic metatarsal guards to protect the instep from impact or compression

Workplace training and education

OSHA recommends that employers establish a formal training program to teach workers how to recognize and avoid material handling hazards. Instructors should be well-versed in safety engineering and materials handling and storing. In your training, emphasize the following:

Proper material handling techniques

Before you lift, remember the following:

  • Wear supportive shoes
  • Use lift assist devices (hand dollies, carts, lift tables, forklifts)
  • Carry all movements out horizontally (e.g., push and pull rather than lift and lower)
  • Always use your body weight and not your feet when pushing
  • Try to have most workplace deliveries placed at hip height
  • Always keep objects in the comfort zone (between hip and shoulder height)
  • Keep all loads close to and in front of the body
  • Keep the back aligned while lifting
  • Maintain the center of balance
  • Let the legs do the actual lifting
  • Reduce the size of the material to keep it light, compact and safe to grasp

Plan your lift with these pointers:

  • Size up the load, its weight, shape and position: Is it too large, too heavy or too awkward to move alone?
  • If so, get help from a coworker or use a mechanical aid device to help with the lift when necessary
  • Decide on the route to take; check for any obstacles such as slippery or cluttered floors
  • Investigate the location where the load is going to be placed in order to anticipate any difficulties
  • Always exercise or warm-up the back prior to lifting

Squat lifting should be used with most lifts, using these tips:

  • Stand as close to the load as possible
  • Move your feet shoulder width apart
  • Tighten your stomach muscles so you can tuck your pelvis
  • Bend at the knees, keeping your back straight and stomach tucked
  • Get a good firm grip on the load
  • Hug the load close to the center of your body
  • Lift smoothly with your legs gradually straightening the knees and hips into a standing position
  • Avoid twisting your body as you lift
Related: Prevent onsite accidents with lockout/tagout safety

Carry loads with these pointers:

  • Keep the load close to the center of your body to take full advantage of the mechanical leverage of your body
  • Don’t change your grip on the load unless it is weight-supported
  • Avoid twisting your body without pivoting your feet at the same time
  • If you must change direction, move your feet in that direction instead of twisting your trunk in that direction
  • Make sure you can see over the load
  • Move carefully toward your destination
  • If a heavier load is carried for some distance, consider storing it closer

Unload objects using the same techniques employed in lifting objects, but in reverse order:

  • Slowly bend your knees to lower the load
  • Keep your back straight and the weight close to the center of your body
  • Allow enough room for fingers and toes when the load is set down
  • Place the load on a bench or table by resting it on the edge and pushing it forward with your arms and body
  • Secure the load to ensure that it will not fall, tip over, roll or block someone’s way

Overhead lifts should employ these techniques:

  • When lifting or lowering objects from above the shoulders, lighten the load whenever possible
  • Stand on something sturdy such as a step stool or platform to decrease the vertical distance
  • When lowering objects from above the shoulders, slide the load close to your body, grasp the object firmly, slide it down your body and proceed with your move

To reduce manual material handling injuries, employ both training along with any necessary workplace modifications and new equipment. Workers need training and hands-on practice with new tools, equipment, or work practices to make sure they have the skills necessary to work safely. Training is most effective when it is interactive and fully involves workers: Provide hands-on practice when new tools, equipment, or procedures are introduced to the workforce. Use several types of visual aids (e.g., pictures, charts, videos) of actual tasks in your workplace. Hold small-group discussions and problem-solving sessions. Give workers ample opportunity for questions.

Related: Confined space safety tips for employers

So, which work tasks may be causing injuries, production bottlenecks or decreased product and service quality in your organization? How can you mitigate these injuries and reduce your workers’ compensation costs? Start with simply observing your employees at work. Find potential problems with a thorough look at your workplace, put the appropriate changes into place, then follow up to ensure changes are meeting their goals.