Manual handling — What to look for now?

JTA Health, Safety & Noise Specialists

By Jeremy Trotman, Senior Hygienist, JTA Health, Safety + Noise
Thursday, 06 August, 2015

Manual handling — What to look for now?

In 2014 Safe Work Australia published some good news statistics: 2011–12 — serious workers compensation claims with “muscular stress while lifting, carrying, or putting down objects” listed as the mechanism of injury were down on the previous year by 21%. Even better, this was no statistical aberration; it reflected a general downward trend since 2000–01.

In addition, the number of back-related serious claims has fallen by 21% between 2000–01 and 2010–11, and the proportion of back-related claims of all serious claims has fallen from 27% in 2000–01 to 23% in 2010–11. If these were economic statistics, politicians would be crowing over “a beautiful set of numbers”; however, OHS people should be more cautious, because the statistics still tell us that manual handling-related injury is a (and arguably “the”) major occupational cause of body stress-type claims and the back is still the most frequent injury site.

What these statistics may be telling us is that the measures that we have been pursuing — measures that have been around since the early 1980s, the legislative levers, barrage of codes, information/fact sheets, professional prescriptions and resultant actions taken by employers and workers — are preventing lifting, carrying-type injury.

The picture does not look as rosy for the other two mechanisms of injury under body stressing with: “muscular stress while handling objects other than lifting, carrying or putting down” showing a slight decrease over 2011–12 but a 3% rise over the preceding years since 2000; and “muscular stress with no objects being handled” having a 5% rise over the same period.

At 25 claims, these two mechanisms of injury account for over half of the total number of claims in the body stressing category.

So perhaps we need to focus more on casting the hazard identification net, risk assessment and control beyond the lifting and carrying tasks to those where we do not seem to be getting the same positive results.

Based on the claim numbers, it would seem that jobs involving pushing, pulling and other actions need our attention now just as much as lifting and carrying. This might require a slight change in focus for hazard identification and risk assessment action, including training.

For the most part, control strategies should remain essentially the same. Driven by the regulations, the control hierarchy will still apply and it is hoped that its increased acceptance in the workplace, allied with the ever-expanding range of higher order engineering devices designed to reduce manual handling risk, shall lead to a parallel reduction in injuries.

In Australia, we read about the need for increased productivity due to our high relative labour costs. The factors that contribute to manual handling risk are almost certainly aligned with lower than optimum productivity. This provides an opportunity to achieve gains in safety and productivity through implementing manual handling controls. Manual handling controls are not always highly technical or costly, but access to specific expertise can be necessary to get people to accept or understand the potential productivity gains that can be realised in their workplace. Practical, industry-based research and/or experience can support an effective case for investment in controls, as a recent example shows:

Getting equipment to a roof where a crane lift is impracticable can be a difficult task involving both manual handling and work at heights. On a domestic construction job where this was the case, the builders were considering methods to haul up equipment to the roof using ropes and ladders and were overheard by a roofing plumber carrying out some roofing works in the vicinity. Without going into the specifics here, the plumber, who had a great deal of experience in work on roofs, gave them a few brief instructions on how the job could be done safely, quickly and at a reasonable cost by a qualified, experienced person (himself). This included the installation of approved anchor points, harnesses and use of approved rope access equipment to haul up the materials without excessive force. The builder was happy that the plumber’s approach represented a good investment rather than risk his own guys.  The decision was to some extent based on cost; however, the availability of the control and the confidence in the person offering the solution as someone with industry-specific experience was critical to convincing the builder that the investment would pay off for him, in his workplace.

If we are to continue to make gains in this area, OHS practitioners need as much of this type of practical research on manual handling controls as they can get to enable people to make informed decisions on manual handling control measures.

Safe Work Australia’s predecessor, the National Occupational health and Safety Commission, set up a program they called SHARE to share OHS solutions through a central repository. SHARE involved the recording and publication of OHS control measures harvested from all industry sectors. Provided by industry people, for industry people, these controls had automatic credibility with their target market. Perhaps it has been gone long enough now to come back into fashion.

Image credit: © Pavlov

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