Back attack! The real cost of manual handling injuries

As we’ve discussed in previous posts about manual handling, heavy manual labour, awkward postures and previous or existing injury can all increase the risk of injuries. In this short piece, which originally appeared in RoSPA’s Occupational Safety & Health Journal, we explore some real life examples that show just how devastating manual handling injuries can be, and the steps you can take to avoid them altogether…

Manual handling. It’s such an innocuous term describing a seemingly innocuous action. Yet without proper training and ergonomic workplace design, this can lead to a variety of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). In fact, according to the HSE, manual handling causes over a third of all workplace injuries, currently affecting one million people a year and costing society £5.7 billion. MSDs affect the muscles, joints, tendons and other parts of the musculoskeletal system, causing pain and damage in the arms, legs, back, shoulders and neck as well as a variety of repetitive strain injuries.

Real life risk

A 54-year-old library assistant was instructed by her employer to help move 80,000 books from one area of the library to another over a four-month period. She was told to lift stacks of books and pack them into boxes – weighing up to 22kg each. These were then loaded onto trolleys and taken to their new destination.

The librarian had not been trained in manual handling techniques and consequently developed back pain from the persistent heavy lifting. She told her manager about the pain and took three days off to rest, however, on returning to work she was told to carry on with moving the boxes.

Her back pain became so severe that her back seized up altogether. Despite seeking treatment from a specialist pain clinic to help her to manage the discomfort, she continues to suffer from chronic back pain which prevents her from working. Her local authority employer did not offer her alternative light duties and she was subsequently dismissed on grounds of medical incapability.

She said: “I never had any problems with my back before lifting those boxes but now I have to adapt my life around managing the pain.

“The fact that my employers denied they were to blame for my injuries and the end of my career was particularly galling. I planned to carry on working until retirement to help pay for my daughter’s university tuition fees but that’s no longer an option for me.”

Preventing manual handling injuries

Such cases should not occur and are not acceptable, and they could be prevented by proper ergonomic risk assessments of all manual handling operations.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (as amended) apply to all work which involves lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling or carrying and they establish the following clear hierarchy of control measures:

  • Hazardous manual handling operations should be completely avoided if at all possible, for example, by redesigning the task to avoid moving the load or by automating or mechanising the process.
  • If that is not possible, suitable and sufficient assessment of any hazardous manual handling operations must be carried out. This is particularly important in a ‘one-off’ job – such as moving the library books – which means that all managers and supervisors need to be made aware that they have responsibilities in relation to work involving manual handling.
  • Reduce the risk of injury, perhaps by providing mechanical assistance, such as a sack trolley or hoist. Where this is not reasonably practicable, ways of changing the task, the load and working environment should be considered.

The ergonomic approach

The mere presence of lifting and handling aids does not, however, solve all manual handling problems. For instance, a paramedic was left with permanent damage to his back and shoulder after he had to manoeuvre a patient into the back of an ambulance using a ‘carry chair’ because the ambulance wasn’t fitted with a tail lift. The awkward manoeuvrability of the carry chair caused him to strain under the weight of the patient. The incident exacerbated an existing back injury – which had itself been caused by lifting a patient. The paramedic had to have physiotherapy and was unable to work for four-and-a-half months.

Modern medical and scientific opinion accepts the scale of the problem and stresses the importance of an ergonomic approach to remove or reduce the risk of manual handling injury. The ergonomic approach looks at manual handling as a whole, taking into account a range of relevant factors, including the nature of the task, the load, the working environment and individual capability. This requires employers to ensure that workers fully participate in risk assessments since they are the ones who know what actually goes on in practice.

Further training

Once all manual handling risks have been assessed and remedial measures put in place, it is essential that employees receive manual handling training in order to inculcate good handling technique. RoSPA offers a range of solutions, including the Manual Handling Trainers BTEC (Level 3), which qualifies you to deliver manual handling training – meaning you can effectively manage the risk posed to you and your colleagues.

Now read this

What is Manual Handling?

7 super tips for safer patient handling

Manual Handling (HSE Advice)

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