Every year thousands of people in the UK suffer a manual handling injury in their workplace, varying from minor injuries to serious long term injuries. Nearly all jobs require employees to carry an item from time to time, whether it be a laptop or parcel, most of the time this happens without any injury being suffered. Unfortunately, accidents will, and do still happen on a regular basis across the UK.

We’re taking a closer look at the scale of the problem the UK still faces to make workplaces safe for all employees in 2021.

What is manual handling?

Manual handling is defined as the supporting or transporting of a load manually (e.g. by hand or by use of bodily force). This can include but is not limited to lifting, pulling, pushing, carrying, or putting down a load.

Many of the tasks we do on a daily basis require manual handling, whether it be carrying files around an office, carrying materials around a construction site, or picking up your child. More often than not manual handling injuries are caused by incorrect methods and not knowing your own limit.

Manual handling injuries in the UK

Manual handling injuries fall into the category of work related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs), other causes of WRMSDs include awkward/tiring positions, keyboard work or repetitive action, workplace accident and stress-related.

During 2019/20, in the UK alone there were 480,000 workers suffering from work related musculoskeletal disorders, whilst some of these are pre-existing, 152,000 workers suffered from a new case of work related musculoskeletal disorder. 44% of these disorders affected the upper limbs or neck, 37% were back injuries and the remaining 19% were lower limb injuries.

It’s thought work related musculoskeletal disorders resulted in 8.9 million lost working days in 2019/20 alone, this equates to an average of 18.4 days lost per case. Whilst in 2018/19 the annual cost of new cases of work-related ill health reached a staggering £10.6 billion.

There are three industries which have consistently had a higher than average rate of musculoskeletal disorders between 2017/18 and 2019/20. Workers in these industries are at a significantly greater risk of suffering from a workplace manual handling injury than the majority of workers.

  • The agriculture, forestry, and fishing industries have an average 2,030 workers per 100,000 suffering from work related musculoskeletal disorders.
  • In the construction industry an average of 2,020 workers per 100,000 suffer from work related musculoskeletal disorders.
  • While in the human health and social work industry an average of 1,420 workers per 100,00 suffer from a WRMSD.

Some of the main factors causing work-related musculoskeletal disorders are manual handling, working in awkward or tiring positions and keyboard or repetitive work.

Is manual handling training a legal requirement?

Yes, manual handling training is a legal requirement in any workplace where staff are required to do any lifting, pulling, pushing, carrying, or lowering of loads. Training is very important in raising awareness and reducing risk, but it won’t ensure safe manual handling on its own.

  • Training should be relevant to the type of work carried out and should cover:
  • Manual handling risk factors and how injuries can happen
  • How to use mechanical aids
  • How to carry out safe manual handling, including good handling techniques
  • Systems of work relevant to the workers role and tasks
  • Practical work so the trainer can identify anything the employee is not doing safely and put it right

What are the risks of poor manual handling?

Given that manual handling causes over a third of all workplace injuries it is apparent the risks of manual handling in the workplace are often overlooked. These injuries often happen when we are least expecting them, we lift and carry things all the time without issue so we don’t expect anything to go wrong.

Manual handling injuries vary in seriousness and while some can be minor others can be life changing. We’ve listed 7 common manual handling injuries to look out for in your workplace.

  • Back injuries

When completing a manual handling task your back is the weakest part of your body. If you have a poor lifting technique or are attempting to lift more than your body can handle you can cause serious injury to your back.

Although it’s not just while trying to lift that back injuries can occur, once you’re carrying the load you should take extra care as the strain on your back is increased significantly. Stooping or twisting can also make you more vulnerable to injury.

  • Strains and sprains

When you over work your body by attempting to move a load which may be heavier than you expected, or simply harder to grip than you first anticipated you can overstretch your muscles. This can cause inflammation, bruising and pain, often this will occur in the back, arms, or wrists.

  • Hand injuries

We all use our hands on a day to day basis, we would struggle to perform many daily tasks without them in fact. Whatever type of manual handling activity you carry out it is more than likely you will be using your hands to grip the item. This turns the item into a hazard in itself if the item has sharp edges you can easily cut your hand as you form a grip.

Not all injuries to your hands occur from direct contact with the item if the item you’re handling is putting excess pressure on a bone or an area of skin you could cause bruising or break a bone. Fingers can easily be trapped underneath an item while putting it down, or between the item and an obstacle such as a door frame.

  • Foot injuries

Although it may sound strange for a foot injury to be caused by poor manual handling but in most of the cases in which a victim breaks a bone it is usually in the foot. These are often caused by the dropping of the load onto a foot, injuries can be serious if protective footwear is now being used.

  • Musculoskeletal disorders

Covering a range of different issues and pains musculoskeletal disorders are broken into three categories, upper limb disorders (e.g. shoulders, neck, arms, and wrists), lower limb disorders (e.g. hips, legs, and toes) and back injuries.

Unlike other injuries, musculoskeletal disorders tend to happen over a longer period of time, it can be caused by repetitive lifting leading to damage, pain and or stiffness in tissue and joints. They are the result of one of more of these tissues having to work harder than they are designed to.

  • Slips, trips and fall injuries

Whether you are carrying out a manual handling task or not, slips, trips and falls can happen at any time. But should a slip, trip or fall occur while you are carrying an item the injuries can be much more significant and the chance of an accident occurring can be increased.

If your visibility is blocked by the item you are carrying you are likely to find it difficult to see any potential hazards, especially if they are at ground level. Before you carry out any manual handling task a risk assessment should be carried out to identify any hazards which need to be minimised.

  • Hernias

A hernia is the medical term used when an internal part of the body pushes through a weakness in the muscle or surrounding tissue wall. Hernias often occur after repeated strain on the tummy area. Over straining while lifting loads heavier than you can handle can cause hernias and the risk’s increase as you get older.

Most hernias will not get better without surgery and can cause varying amounts of pain.

What should employers do to protect their employees?

Employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety of their staff, employers also have a legal duty to follow the Manual Handling Operations Regulations. These regulations were put in place to protect employees from injuries due to manual handling in the workplace.

Although there is no such thing as a ‘no lifting’ policy within the regulations, they instead state that manual handling should only be performed when it is absolutely necessary and once the risks have been assessed and minimised where possible.

The best way for employers to ensure the safety of staff in the workplace is to ensure they adhere to three rules, which are:

Avoid manual handling wherever possible

The most effective method of ensuring the employees are not injured while manual handling is to avoid all manual handling. This can include using machinery or other equipment (e.g. lifts and trolleys) to complete the task at hand or assist at very least.

However, it’s acknowledged that there are instances where avoidance is not possible.

Assess the risk of manual handling where it is required

Where avoidance is not an option and manual handling is the only option, an assessment should be performed to ensure that any remaining risks are minimised.

When completing a risk assessment employees should focus on the main areas of:

  • The task in hand
  • The load involved
  • The working environment
  • The individuals involved capability

Within this, factors to consider include:

  • Whether the activity involves twisting, bending, sudden movement and the distance of travel required
  • The size and weight of the load
  • The space available to perform the activity in and the conditions of the area (wet, slippery, etc)
  • The strength and height of the individual

Reduce the risk of injury

To reduce the risk of injury employees should take into considerations such as whether or not more than one person can perform the task, could the loads be made smaller and whether the distance of travel could be reduced.

Employers should also provide their employees with manual handling training to ensure they know the safe way to lift objects. Just by doing this, employers could see a vast reduction in the number of injuries that occur in the workplace, with vast majority of injuries sustained due to poor handling techniques.

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