Russell Corlett, health & safety director at employment law specialist Peninsula, looks at how musculoskeletal disorders in workers can be avoided

Almost half a million workers were affected by musculoskeletal disorders related to manual handling at work in 2017-18. That is 35% of all cases of work-related ill health and 6.5 million lost working days.

Manual handling – lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling of a load – is a daily task for many bakery workers. Tasks will include loading and unloading products from vehicles, pushing and pulling roll cages, lifting and emptying sacks, moving mixer bowls, trays and crates.

The Manual Handling Regulations require employers to eliminate manual handling where there are reasonably practicable alternatives or to assess the hazards and risks to their workforce and take measures to reduce the risk of injury and ill health. When assessing hazards and risks, consider whether manual handling can be avoided or eliminated by reorganising or automating work or by the introduction of a mechanical handling aid.

If this is not a practicable option, you must consider how you will protect your workforce. Involve workers as, from experience, they may be able to suggest suitable low-cost solutions.

There are four key issues that need to be considered:

The Task

  • What needs to be moved?
  • How frequently?
  • Short or long movements?
  • Will it require team handling?
  • Will workers need to bend, twist, stoop, push or pull?
  • Will the load need to be lifted above shoulder height?
  • Is the task done while seated?
  • Could there be sudden movements?

The Individual

  • Consider people who need to carry out manual handling as part of their work.
  • Take account of workers having varied physical fitness, abilities, height and body weight. 
  • Tall people are at greater risk when picking up from the floor – the bending movement puts excessive pressure on their spine.
  • Pregnant and young workers may need a personal manual handling assessment reviewed at regular intervals.
  • Take account of workers with disabilities or suffering ill health.

The Load

  • What is the load?
  • How heavy and what shape? A sack of flour being dispensed will change weight and shape while being handled; a liquid load will shift weight during movement.
  • Consider how this may affect the individual; sudden movement or shifts in weight could cause muscle strain.
  • Is it hot or cold?
  • Are there handles or lifting points that are easy to grip?
  • Is it in balance?
  • Is it stable?

The Environment

  • Is the route to be taken level and free from obstruction?
  • Changes in the surface – slippery, soft or unstable – all increase risk.
  • Is there adequate space to manoeuvre the load?
  • Weather conditions where the task is outdoors. Pushing a roll cage across an incline or icy surface requires greater effort and increases the risk of injury.
  • Temperature and humidity can affect muscular strain. In a cold environment, it may be necessary to provide personal protective clothing including gloves, and don’t forget to consider their impact on the ability to grip handles and lifting points.

The frequency of the task is an important consideration. The more repetitive the task and the heavier the load, the greater the risk. Lifting a 20kg load more than once every five minutes begins to put the worker at risk, while lifting a 15kg load once every two minutes does not normally do so. Where frequency is high, job rotation may be a simple way to reduce the risk to individual workers.

The introduction of mechanical aids to assist the work process can have a big impact on reducing risk. They can also have an impact on efficiency, productivity and reducing the number of damaged goods. A wide range of mechanical handling aids are available at a reasonable cost and the enforcing authorities consider their use a reasonably practicable option.

On completion of any assessment or the introduction of new equipment or new systems, remember to inform and train your workforce, keeping appropriate records.