Health and safety issues regarding manual handling

Article reference: UK-IA-HSE08
Last updated: December 2020 | 10 min read

This article is based on The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 and The Management of Health and Safety at Work (MHSW) Regulations, as well as other important acts that endeavour to reduce the injuries caused in the workplace. It explains the problems associated with all kinds of manual handling from lifting and pushing to pulling, lowering and carrying,and sets out best practice in dealing with them.

Over 35% of all reported injuries at work are caused by manual handling. On average, injuries from this cause require three days or longer away from work. The next most common cause is tripping or falling.

Further, over a million people in the UK suffer from a musculoskeletal disorder (abbreviated to MSD). These often begin with an injury suffered in the workplace.

The genetic makeup of the individual, previous or existing injuries, awkward postures and heavy manual labour all contribute to the increased risks of sustaining much an injury while at work. Prevention is much easier, less painful and less time-consuming than a cure. Not all MSDs can be prevented; however, early diagnosis and speedy reporting of the injury help the individual to recover faster.

Duties under the law

Employers must avoid the need for hazardous manual handling so far as is reasonably practical. You may be able to avoid moving the load to carry out the work, or a machine could be used to move it (but beware H&S risks from using the machine).

You should assess the risk of injury from any manual handling that cannot be avoided. The process would follow that of other risk assessments. Since the people who work in the business know the line of work in most detail, the employer, or a senior employee is often the best person to carry out an assessment.

Assessments should be recorded.

Reduce the risk of injury so far as is practical. ‘So far as is reasonably practical’ means that you should reduce the risk until the financial cost or impracticality of reducing the risk further outweighs the benefits.

It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that they are up to date with health and safety techniques.

There are also responsibilities for employees. They must:

  • follow the systems of work that have been designed for their safety
  • use the equipment provided in the appropriate manner
  • cooperate with their supervisor, manager or employer on health and safety matters
  • inform the employer if they identify hazardous handling activities
  • ensure their activities do not put others at risk


Training cannot overcome bad posture, unsuitable loads, lack of mechanical aids or bad working conditions. It can aid in the manual handling of loads where they are suitable and have been assessed and so on.

Training should cover:

  • how to use automated equipment such as a lifting truck, including how injuries can occur
  • good handling techniques
  • systems for the type of work and the particular environment
  • practical training with practice loads (light loads), so that the trainer can pick up on aspects of technique that the employee should work on

The following are the sorts of information that should be communicated to employees.

A good lifting technique

Plan the lift by taking a moment of time to think abut how and where to, you will lift the object. Use handling aids such as handles and straps where possible.

Remove any obstructions – both on the object and on the move route. Consider resting mid-lift, perhaps on a table or bench in order for you to change grip or relax for a moment.

Place you feet shoulder width apart or where they are comfortable, making sure you are balanced and stable. Place the leading leg slightly forward if this is more comfortable.

Adopt a good posture. Keep the load close to the waist. Bend your knees so that your hands, when grasping the load, are as level with your waist as possible. Do not kneel or over-flex the knees. Keep your back straight by tucking in your chin. Lean forward over the load slightly as this helps maintain your balance and posture and to keep a good grip Keep shoulders level and facing in the same direction as the hips.

Maintain a firm, secure grip. A hook grip is less strenuous than keeping the fingers straight. If you can, vary the grip as you move to prevent strain.

Try not to jerk. Carry the object smoothly keeping control of the load. Move the feet and try not to twist from the torso when turning to the side – instead, face the way you want to go.

Put the load down, and then adjust the positioning if necessary. Take small steps when moving the object further and don’t try to move it all in one go.

Holding loads close to the trunk

When a load is held away from the trunk the stress on the lower back increases substantially.

As a rough guide, the stress on the lower back is about five times as much when a load is held at arm's length than when it is held close to the body. The friction of a load against the worker's clothing also helps to support and steady the load when it is close to the body.

Any changes that can be made to the task which allow the load to be held closer to the handler's body are likely to be beneficial.


Twisting the trunk should be avoided when lifting or supporting a load and is particularly damaging if carried out when seated.

Where it is necessary to twist the body during the handling operation, a reduction in the maximum weight of load is considered appropriate. Reductions of approximately 10%, when the degree of twist is 45%, and 20% when twisting through 90%, are suggested as reasonable.

The layout of workstations where handling is to be carried out either seated or standing should be considered so that the need to twist the body during the task is avoided.


This increases the load on the lower back whether it is done by bending the back, or by leaning forward with the back straight. In either case the weight of the trunk is added to the weight of the load being lifted.

Attention should be given to storage of materials to avoid heavy or awkward loads having to be lifted from the ground.

Reaching upwards

Greater loads are imposed on the back, shoulders and arms when a load is handled with arms outstretched. As a result, there is a greater risk of injury when handling of a load is carried out while reaching upwards, particularly if the stretching is prolonged or repetitive. Control of the load is also more difficult when the arms are outstretched.

Large vertical movement of the load

The ideal height for handling of a load is around waist height. Lifting or lowering a load outside this range requires greater physical effort and increases the likelihood of injury. Where a load has to be lifted or lowered through a wide height range it will normally need to be handled outside this preferred zone. In this case the weight of the load should be limited to that which can safely be handled at the least favourable height.

Movement of loads can be made easier by arranging storage areas. Significant variation in the height of storage or working surfaces should be avoided where possible. Where practicable, heavier objects should be stored around waist height, with space above or below this level being used for lighter or more easily handled items.

Where lifting of loads from floor level is unavoidable, the risk of injury can be substantially reduced if the load is held close to the body to allow the stronger leg muscles to be used in lifting. Factors that may prevent this being achieved are the size of the load, obstacles on the floor, lifting from within deep bins or poor stance. Elimination of these problems will allow the task to be carried out more easily.

Team lifting may be necessary to place heavier items into their storage location if they have to be lifted from the floor.

Long carrying distances

If a load has to be carried more than about 10 metres, the effort involved in carrying the load is likely to predominate over that of lifting it and will often be the limiting factor in deciding whether the load should reasonably be handled manually. Use of transport aids such as trolleys or barrows should be considered. Ideally, the height of the trolley should be the same as that of any work surfaces from which the load is moved.

Strenuous pushing or pulling

Pushing or pulling can place the handler at risk of injury particularly if it is carried out with the hands below knuckle height, above shoulder height or if the action is jerky. The condition of the floor and the type of shoes worn by the handler should also be considered, as the risk of slipping can be significant. Floors that are wet, greasy or which have a loose or uneven surface increase the risks.

To get a load moving when pushing or pulling it, a reasonable force to apply is up 25kg. After it is moving a force of up to 10kg is reasonable to keep it in motion. These are not maximum limits but are likely to enable the majority of people to carry out the task with minimal risk of injury. The forces involved in pushing and pulling can be measured with a spring balance if necessary.

Unpredictable movement of loads

If there is a risk of a load suddenly becoming free (such as when pulling an object that is stuck to release it) or moving unpredictably during handling, the handler is at greater risk of injury. This risk is increased if the handler's posture is unsuitable.

Repetitive handling

Frequent or prolonged physical effort can give rise to injury even, where the load itself is not particularly heavy. Often, repetitive movements are combined with twisting or stooping which increases the risk still further. Work that involves these factors should be examined very carefully for ways in which the risks can be reduced.

Insufficient rest or recovery period

This factor is particularly relevant when repetitive lifting is carried out. The development of physical and mental fatigue reduces the individual capabilities of a handler over time, and consequently increases the risk of injury. Regular short halts in the work are a better means of avoiding fatigue than infrequent longer breaks and, where possible, a flexible approach to timing of work breaks should be adopted. Provided the tasks involved are sufficiently different in character, job rotation can also be effective in avoiding the onset of fatigue as a result of prolonged use of a particular group of muscles.

Team handling

Where an object is too large or heavy to be handled by one person, safe handling may perhaps be accomplished by two or more people working together. This, in itself, introduces problems, and it is essential that the task is discussed between the team members before attempting the operation. The way that the weight borne by individual team member may vary during the task should also be considered (e.g. when negotiating stairs). It is important that the operation is effectively co-ordinated so that team members do not hinder one another and work in unison. To achieve this, one person should be nominated to direct the work.

The approximate lifting capability of a two person team can be taken as two thirds their combined individual capacities. For a three person team, half of their combined capacity is considered a reasonable figure to adopt.

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