Ergonomics is the practice of designing tasks, equipment and workplaces to enhance comfort, safety and efficiency. Ergonomic principles play a major role in designing safe and effective manual handling practices. By incorporating an ergonomic approach to manual handling, employers can ensure that both the working environment and manual handling procedures used are safe.
Improper manual handling techniques are responsible for a third of all workplace injuries in the UK, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), these injuries include damage to the joints, arms, legs, neck and back. This article will provide you with a brief outline of both manual handling and ergonomic principles and how they can be used together to create safer, more productive manual handling procedures.
The Principles of Manual Handling
Manual handling is defined as “transporting or supporting of a load (including the lifting, putting down, pushing, pulling, carrying or moving thereof) by hand or bodily force” by the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR).
There are eight basic principles of manual handling:
- Do not twist at the waist
- Push or pull loads into position
- Where possible, split loads
- Always secure stacked loads
- Use mechanical lifting aids whenever possible
- Divide the task of lifting heavy loads between workers
- Avoid stretching or moving awkwardly
- Always protect your back
The Five Aspects of Ergonomics
Ergonomic principles state that any work environment or task should be designed to fit a worker’s body type and capabilities as much as possible. Ergonomics encompasses five main aspects:
- Safety – All equipment must be able to be used safely
- Comfort – Workers should be able to complete tasks without overexerting themselves
- Ease of use – Tasks should not be unreasonably difficult for a worker to physically carry out
- Productivity – Work deadlines should be realistic and processes should be simplified as much as possible
- Aesthetics – The work environment should be safe, have clear signage and allow employees to perform tasks easily
Applying Ergonomics to Manual Handling Activities
Applying an ergonomic approach to manual handling entails considering how tasks can be performed with minimal or no bodily stress. This process begins with conducting a thorough risk assessment of the workplace. A risk assessment will identify any hazards and can then be used to develop procedures that use good ergonomic principles to eliminate or mitigate risks. Data gathered from a risk assessment is also crucial in developing a relevant training needs analysis for workers.
The below example shows how an ergonomic approach to manual handling can work in a practical setting.
Example: Ergonomics in Warehouse Manual Handling
Figure 1: Operative reaching to reach the rear of a sloped storage stack
Figure 2: Operative bending at the waist to reach the rear of a sloped storage stack
A risk assessment concluded that:
- The horizontal distance of the load from the lifter at the start of the lift should be reduced
- The horizontal distance of the load from the lifter should be reduced as it is placed on the pallet truck
- Twisting motions as the worker turns to place the load on the pallet truck should be reduced
By using an ergonomic approach to manual handling rather than traditional manual handling techniques, workers and management were able to reduce these risks. Workers were encouraged to take goods one layer at a time to help spread the weight of the load evenly. Workers were also asked to move both their feet as they loaded the goods onto the pallet trucks to avoid unnecessary twisting at the waist.
Figure 3: Picking one layer at a time facilitates a reduction in the horizontal distance between the lifter and the load at the beginning of the lift e.g. the load can be pulled to the front edge before the weight is taken
To avoid unnecessary stretching, workers who were small in stature were allowed to pick goods in such a way as to create a small slope at the front of the pallet. This enabled them to reach goods at the back of the pallet more easily.
A training video was developed to provide new hires with information on how to perform tasks safely using these ergonomic procedures. Signage was put up reminding employees of the correct lifting procedures and observers were used to report levels of compliance. Team meetings were held to assess the level of worker satisfaction with the new techniques.
By focusing on an ergonomic approach to manual handling, the warehouse was able to eliminate the risks of MSDs and enhance productivity.
Ergonomic Issues with Manual Handling Training
The main aim of manual handling training is to teach workers how to correctly move heavy or cumbersome objects so that they avoid the risks of MSDs.
While manual handling training is an essential part of health and safety, by itself, training will not achieve optimal safety in the workplace. However, many manual handling training courses do not take into account the tasks and hazards that are specific to a particular workplace. Instead, these courses teach trainees a general overview of manual handling techniques that, while useful, are not always applicable to the tasks employees are required to perform. For example, manual handling tasks that healthcare workers must perform differ greatly from manual handling tasks on a building site.
Where to Learn More about Ergonomics and Manual Handling Activities
Taking an ergonomic approach to manual handling duties will result in more efficient and safer work practices. Manual handling training should always be relevant to the required tasks and focus on eliminating or minimising specific workplace risks.
You can find accredited online manual handling training on the Human Focus website. These courses focus on specific sectors, such as construction, warehouse, office and industry. Human Focus courses provide trainees with a solid grounding in the principles of safe manual handling at work.