Manual handling is a term that is used in a variety of industries to describe tasks that involve moving loads from place to place. It includes a range of different motions and actions, but there are five key movements that most manual handling tasks can be described as involving.
There is plenty of official guidance out there on the key principles of safe manual handling, with each different movement involving different advice. In this article, we explain what each of these movements is and what you need to know before attempting them whilst handling a load, as well as sharing why this guidance is so important.
The term ‘manual handling’ is used to describe a group of actions that involve using your body and/or hands to move or support a load. A load is anything which is moveable and can be either an inanimate object or a living thing such as a person or an animal.
Manual handling tends to be discussed the most in relation to work that involves the lifting or moving of loads, whether that’s helping to carry patients in health and social care or moving stock around in a warehouse. It can involve handling loads of significant weight, which is why safe manual handling techniques are necessary to prevent injury and ensure that nobody is putting themselves at risk when completing tasks.
You can use ‘manual handling’ to describe a wide range of tasks, but in general the actions involved can be divided into five main movements; lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. In the following sections, we’ll explain what each of these movements involves and share advice on the safest and correct manual handling techniques for each of them.
Lifting is one of the key movements involved in most manual handling exercises and is also a movement that has the potential to cause the most injury. For this reason, there is a lot of guidance available around correct lifting techniques to help reduce injury and ensure that loads can be raised safely.
Lifting involves moving a load from one height to another above it, either from ground level to a raised surface or from one raised surface to another that is higher up. Lifting light loads is a very simple task that has a very low risk of injury, but heavier loads like large packages, equipment or people need to be approached with care.
To safely lift a load, start by looking at the task and making sure you’re clear on what needs to be done. Have an end destination for the load in mind before you pick it up, and also consider whether you can reasonably bear the weight or whether you need assistance.
If the load is heavy, you may also want to designate a midpoint for the lift where you can rest and readjust.
When lifting a load, the best practice is to keep it as close to your body as possible, with the heaviest side resting against you. This makes the weight easier to bear and reduces the risk of injury to your arms and shoulders by avoiding the load being held away from you.
If lifting a load from the ground, make sure you lift with your whole body, not just your hands and arms. Avoid bending from the waist and instead bend your knees to get low to the ground as you take hold of the load, and then keep your back straight as you rise.
Make sure that you have a firm grip on the load before you lift it, to avoid it slipping out of your grasp when you move. If it helps, you can wear gloves to improve your grip and protect your hands from rough materials.
When lifting a load, the final piece of manual handling at work advice is to avoid twisting your body whilst holding something heavy. Instead, keep straight and upright and move your whole body if you need to see or move somewhere else, to avoid straining or overbalancing.
Many of the principles of safe manual handling for lowering are the same as they are for lifting. Instead of taking a load from one height to a height above it, you are moving a load from a height to another height below it.
You should follow the same guidance for safe lifting; keeping the load close to your body, having a firm grip and avoiding twisting or overextending whilst you are carrying it. Before doing any manual handling, decide how you are going to lower the load and identify any help you might need to complete the task.
Something else to consider whilst lowering a load is the height the load initially is. It may be that a load is above head height, which can be fine if it is small or very light, but potentially very dangerous if it’s large or heavy.
It is always best to be able to fully see a load before you handle it, so if possible you should try and get closer to the load that needs lowering using a step or a stool. This may mean that you need to lower the load in two stages, but this is fine as it’s much safer.
When lowering a load, avoid leaning or bending from the waist and instead bend your knees and keep your back straight if you have to lower it to the ground. Make sure your fingers won’t get trapped underneath when the load reaches a surface, but also avoid dropping it as this can potentially cause damage.
Pushing a load is an easier part of manual handling, but is still one that has the potential to cause injury. It involves using force to move an object along a flat surface and take it from one place to another, either by pushing the load itself or using equipment to push it, like a trolley.
As with any manual handling task, health and safety guidelines recommend that you assess the task first and ensure you know where the load needs to end up. When pushing a load, also make sure that the path or surface is clear and without any obstacles before you start the task, as this will prevent accidents or disruptions.
If a load is particularly large, you may also struggle to see where you are going whilst you are pushing it. This should be avoided where possible, either by separating the load or using equipment instead.
Pulling is a very similar movement to pushing in manual handling, but instead involves using your body to move a load by pulling it towards you across a flat surface. It can be done just by using your hands and arms or may be done with the help of equipment.
The same manual handling guidelines apply here as they do with pushing; clear the route you’re going to pull the load along first and make sure that you know and can see where you’re going. Do not attempt to pull a load that puts a lot of physical strain on your body as this may cause an injury, and instead always separate a load if possible or use assistance in the form of equipment or someone else.
Carrying refers to moving a loaf from one location to another by lifting it and then holding it as you move. It may combine other movements involved in workplace manual handling, but requires its own guidance as well.
You should never carry a load that weighs more than the suggested manual handling weight limits or causes significant strain, especially if you have to carry it for an extended period of time. Before trying to carry a load, consider where it is going and how long you will have to hold it for and plan to make stops along the route if necessary.
You should always carry a load close to your body, as this makes heavier objects easier to hold for longer. You also need to ensure that you have a very firm grip on the load, which you can use special gloves to help you with if necessary.
As with pushing and pulling, make sure that your route is clear before you start a carrying manual handling task, and also ensure that you can see where you’re going. Keep your body straight, your arms tucked in, and avoid twisting or leaning whilst you are carrying the load.
Following the key principles of safe manual handling and using appropriate techniques for each of the five key movements is very important from a health and safety perspective.
Firstly, it massively reduces the number of injuries that take place at work because of improper manual handling. When staff have received sufficient training, they are much less likely to be involved in accidents or sustain any injuries from handling loads, which contributes to creating a safe workplace where employees feel confident and protected.
This is also a benefit from a financial perspective, as the cost of employees being off work with injuries gained from unsafe manual handling won’t have to be covered.
Ensuring that the correct manual handling techniques are followed in the workplace also means that employees stay in good health for longer, meaning that they’re also likely to stay in their role for longer and reduces the need for finding new staff.
Minimising injuries from manual handling at work means that there will be fewer staff absences because of accidents, which saves money and means that work is less likely to be disrupted. By having few or no workplace injuries, businesses also avoid gaining a poor reputation or potentially facing legal action if one of their employees tried to sue after getting hurt.
Leading on from that point, it is very important to ensure safe manual handling techniques at work because this is covered by health and safety legislation. As well as the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) which states that all employers have a responsibility to provide training and guidance to keep employees safe whilst doing their jobs, there is also the Manual Handling Operations Regulations (1992), which also states that employers are responsible for keeping employees that undertake manual handling safe from harm.
Failure to comply with these laws could result in serious legal and financial consequences if a business was reported to HSE, which may also result in damage to its reputation and the potential loss of employees and customers.
Finally, promoting safe workplace manual handling and enforcing these techniques can lead to a more productive workplace. If employees know what they need to do in order to stay safe then they can work without worrying about getting injured or experiencing delays because of accidents, which allows work to take place without disruption and high levels of efficiency to be achieved.
There are no legal limitations on how much weight a person can lift during manual handling, but there are recommendations. Men are not recommended to lift more than 25kg and women are not recommended to lift more than 16kg, although these manual handling guidelines will depend on personal levels of fitness, the lifter’s size and the kind of manual handling task they are undertaking.
In manual handling, ICC stands for Incident Contact Centre, which is a reporting service for health and safety incidents that take place at work. If you have an accident whilst manual handling in the workplace, you need to report it to the ICC if they fall under the RIDDOR legislation.
Good communication can reduce the risk of manual handling because it ensures that everyone undertaking a manual handling task and those in the surrounding area are aware of what is happening. Not only will this reduce the likelihood of an accident caused by miscommunication between people lifting or moving loads, but it also reduces the likelihood that a bystander will get injured or cause an accident because they were unaware of a manual handling task taking place.
Good communication can also involve making suggestions or corrections for the proper way to undertake manual handling tasks, which can reduce injury by ensuring that official guidance is being followed.
Manual handling tasks can range from carrying boxes to lifting incredibly heavy equipment, but the same safety principles apply no matter the weight of the load and the severity of the task at hand. Whether you work in a role that involves manual handling or you’re an employer whose staff completes manual handling tasks at work, being clear on the movements involved and how to do each of these safely is very important.
If you’d like to learn more about health and safety guidance with manual handling, we cover this topic and more in our online ‘Manual Handling in the Workplace’ course which is suitable for a wide range of occupations.