Law guide: Workplace

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Safe manual work

Safe manual work

Safe manual work

There are many hazards you might come across while doing manual work. This article looks at the most common hazards, how you can reduce your risk of injury at work and what your employer's responsibilities are.

Musculoskeletal Disorders

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are the most common kind of work-related illnesses in the UK, and include problems like lower back pain, joint injuries and repetitive strain injuries. Most MSDs can be avoided if you know what causes them and how to protect yourself.

What are the causes of MSDs?

MSDs can be caused by:

  • Repetitive and heavy lifting
  • Bending and twisting, or repeating something too often
  • Working in an awkward or uncomfortable position
  • Using too much force
  • Working too long without breaks
  • Working in extreme conditions (e.g. too hot or cold)
  • Using defective, worn, or the wrong tools for the job
  • Not dealing with symptoms quickly enough

How can MSDs be prevented?

Most importantly, you need to make sure you're properly trained in how to:

  • Use tools and equipment safely
  • Handle heavy or awkward loads

You should also make sure that you:

  • Take regular breaks
  • Vary your work to reduce repetitive tasks

If you think you're suffering from an MSD, make sure you:

  • Report symptoms to your employer as soon as they develop
  • Get the right treatment
  • Are allowed enough time to recover properly

Other common problems

There are other potential problems at work, including

Slips and trips

Slips and trips cause more than 30 per cent of all major injuries reported each year. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (or Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993) require floors to be suitable, in good condition and free from obstructions. People must be able to move around safely. See the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website or the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) website for more information.

Falls from height

Falls from height are a hazard in all industrial sectors. Any work done at height is regulated by the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and the Work at Height Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005. See the HSE or HSENI websites for more information.


Vibration can cause long-term health effects if it isn't dealt with properly. There are regulations, the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 and the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005, which cover exposure to vibration at work. See the HSE or HSENI websites for more information.


Noise at work can cause permanent damage to hearing. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (or Control of Noise at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006), otherwise known as the Noise Regulations, require employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work. See the HSE or HSENI websites for more information.

Your employer has a legal duty to assess all of these hazards in a risk assessment. As well as telling you about them, they must supply information, training and suitable protective measures to reduce the risks linked to the hazards.

Things to be aware of when lifting and carrying

Lifting and carrying can cause back pain. Before you lift or carry a load, you should first consider whether the load needs to be moved at all - maybe you can carry out your task with the load where it is.

If you must move it, think about whether you can use a machine to help you. If not, there are a number of ways to reduce risks, including:

  • Making the load smaller or easier to lift
  • Changing the way the work is arranged to cut down the distance it has to be carried, and to reduce the amount of twisting or lifting
  • Asking your employer to make changes to your work area (e.g. better lighting, more even flooring, or improved temperatures)
  • Making sure you have the right training for lifting safely

Your employer's responsibilities

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations say your employer must

  • Assess any hazardous manual handling operations that can't be avoided
  • Avoid hazardous manual handling operations if possible
  • Reduce the risk of injury by providing alternative methods of carrying out the task

What to do about back pain

If you suffer from back pain, you should stay active and try simple pain relief tablets. If the pain doesn't go away or gets worse, you should talk to your GP.

The HSE and HSENI are running a 'Better Backs' campaign on back pain.

If your back pain is caused by or made worse by your job, you should first speak to your employer. If you have an employee representative (e.g. a trade union official) or a safety representative, they may be able to help you.

Extra help if you're disabled

If you're disabled, you may need extra help to do manual work. Your employer can speak to an 'Access To Work Adviser' via your local Jobcentre, who may be able to help pay for any changes needed (e.g. providing lifting equipment).

What to do next

To reduce risks when you're carrying out manual work:

  • Check whether your employer has carried out a risk assessment
  • Follow the recommendations about safe manual work and ask your employer to organise training if necessary
  • Tell your employer about any problems

Where to get help

The HSE Infoline offers confidential advice and guidance for England, Wales and Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, contact the HSENI's Infoline through the website.

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