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Manual handling

Manual handling

What is manual handling?

Manual handling injuries can occur anywhere at work. Heavy manual labour, awkward postures, manual materials handling and previous or existing injuries can all lead to aches and pains in the:

  • Back
  • Upper limbs — neck, shoulder and arms
  • Lower limbs — hips, knees, ankles and feet

These injuries can be classified as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

The Health and Safety Executives (HSE, and HSENI in Northern Ireland) consider preventing and controlling MSDs a priority.

It's hard to prevent all MSDs, but you should still encourage employees to report symptoms early and arrange treatment for anyone who gets injured.

What law applies?

MSDs are covered by several pieces of legislation. Your main legal responsibility is to protect the health and safety of your employees and other people who might be affected by what they do, as required by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (or in Northern Ireland, Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978).

Managing the risk of MSD

When you perform a risk assessment (The 5-step approach to risk assessments), be aware of any manual handling activities of your employees. You should consult and involve them as much as possible during your risk assessment as they can possibly offer practical solutions to controlling risks.

Avoiding manual handling

You should first check whether you can use other methods instead of manual handling. For example, you could use automation, particularly for new processes. Alternatively, consider using handling aids, such as:

  • A conveyor
  • A pallet truck
  • An electric or a hand-powered hoist
  • A lift truck

However, beware of new hazards caused by using machines.

Assessing and reducing the risk of injury

If you can't avoid manual handling, then you should assess whether you can make the employees' activities easier and less risky.

The table below shows you some common factors that can cause problems, and suggests ways to reduce the risk of injury.

Problems to look for when making an assessmentWays of reducing the risk of injury

Do tasks involve:

- Holding loads away from the body?

- Twisting, stooping or reaching upwards?

- Large vertical movement?

- Long carrying distances?

- Strenuous pushing or pulling?

- Repetitive handling?

- Insufficient rest or recovery time?

- A work rate imposed by a process?

Can you:

- Use a lifting aid

- Improve workplace layout to improve efficiency?

- Reduce the amount of twisting and stooping?

- Avoid lifting from floor level or above shoulder height, especially heavy loads?

- Reduce carrying distances?

- Avoid repetitive handling?

- Vary the work, allowing one set of muscles to rest while another is used?

- Push rather than pull?

Are loads:

- Heavy, bulky or unwieldy?

- Difficult to grasp?

- Unstable or likely to move unpredictably (like animals)?

- Harmful, e.g. sharp or hot?

- Awkwardly stacked?

- Too large for the handler to see over?

Can you make the load:

- Lighter or less bulky?

- Easier to grasp?

- More stable?

- Less damaging to hold?

If the load comes in from elsewhere, have you asked the supplier to help, e.g. provide handles or smaller packages?

In the working environment, are there:

- Constraints on posture?

- Bumpy, obstructed or slippery floors?

- Variations in levels?

- Hot/cold/humid conditions?

- Gusts of wind or other strong air movements?

- Poor lighting conditions?

- Restrictions on movements or posture from clothes or personal protective equipment (PPE)?

Can you:

- Remove obstructions to free movement?

- Provide better flooring?

- Avoid steps and steep ramps?

- Prevent extremes of hot and cold?

- Improve lighting?

- Provide protective clothing or PPE that is less restrictive?

- Ensure your employees' clothing and footwear is suitable for their work?

Does the job:

- Require unusual capability, e.g. above-average strength or agility?

- Endanger those with a health problem or learning/physical disability?

- Endanger pregnant women?

- Call for special information or training?

Can you:

- Pay particular attention to those who have a physical weakness?

- Take extra care of pregnant employees?

- Give your employees more information, e.g. about the range of tasks they are likely to face?

- Provide more training

- Get advice from an occupational health advisor if you need to.

Handling aids and equipment:

- Is the device the correct type for the job?

- Is it well maintained?

- Are the wheels on the device suited to the floor surface?

- Do the wheels run freely?

- Is the handle height between the waist and shoulders?

- Are the handle grips in good order and comfortable?

- Are there any brakes? If so, do they work?

Can you:

- Provide equipment that is more suitable for the task?

- Carry out planned preventive maintenance to prevent problems?

- Change the wheels, tyres and/or flooring so that equipment moves easily?

- Provide better handles and handle grips?

- Make the brakes easier to use, reliable and effective?

Work organisation factors:

- Is the work repetitive or boring?

- Is work machine or system paced?

- Do employees feel the demands of the work are excessive?

- Have employees little control of the work and working methods?

- Is there poor communication between managers and employees?

Can you:

- Change tasks to reduce the monotony?

- Make more use of employees' skills?

- Make workloads and deadlines more achievable?

- Encourage good communication and teamwork?

- Involve employees in decisions?

- Provide better training and information?


If your employees' work is varied or not closely supervised, make sure they're aware of what risks to look for when manual handling, and what to do about them.

The final responsibility for assessments will still be yours.

In addition, employees should:

  • Follow your appropriate systems of work and policies created for their safety
  • Properly use equipment provided for their safety
  • Cooperate with you on health and safety matters
  • Inform you if they identify hazardous handling activities
  • Take care to ensure that their activities don't put others at risk

Generic or individual risk assessments

It's sometimes good enough to do a 'generic' assessment, i.e. carrying out the same risk assessment for a group of employees doing the same activity, work or on one site.


  • This should only be done if there are no individual or local factors that need to be taken into account, such as differences in stature, competence, etc.
  • You should review a generic risk assessment if individual employees report poor symptoms, become ill, injured or disabled, or return following a long period of sickness, as they may have become vulnerable to risk.
  • You may need to carry out individual risk assessments for employees with a disability in order to comply with the requirements of the Equality Act (or in Northern Ireland the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 & Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2006).

The important thing in all assessments is to identify all significant risks of injury and find practical improvements.

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