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Reduce Injuries with Proper Technique

MATERIALS handling often focuses on storage and transport by equipment, including forklifts. However, employee behaviors and work practices, such as using poor lifting techniques, also contribute to many injuries.

Activities such as bending, overexertion, and repetitive motion are common when handling materials. The Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes these actions in a group designated "bodily reaction and exertion." This group accounted for 42 percent of the 1.3 million lost time injuries in private industry during 2003--more than twice the number of cases caused by falls. Most of these cases involved sprains and strains.

The OSHA regulation at 29 CFR 1910.176(b) plainly states, "Storage of material shall not create a hazard." Although injuries do result from unsafe storage, compliance with this requirement addresses only half the problem. Teaching proper lifting techniques and safe work practices can reduce these incidents.

Focus on Work Practices
To encourage safe work practices, implement the following rule: "Employee work practices should not create a hazard."

You already work to eliminate unsafe behaviors such as horseplay or not wearing PPE. Expand this approach by watching for improper behavior and teaching correct lifting procedures. Remind workers to get assistance when moving something heavy (even if getting help takes more time), and emphasize the importance of proper lifting.

Watch for Proper Technique
An injury can indicate a workplace hazard, but correcting the problem after an employee gets hurt is reactive. Make every effort to identify and correct problems before a worker gets hurt. This requires a systematic inspection and assessment of the workplace.

Evaluating the workplace means not only checking material in storage, but also ensuring employees use safe work practices. Workers should know and understand the potential hazards involved with unsafe lifts and how to minimize the danger.

Inspect your workplace for improper materials handling practices and take corrective action. Focus on employee behaviors as well as the physical environment.

Teach Proper Techniques
Make employees aware of potential injuries that can occur when manually moving materials, including strains and sprains from improper lifting and carrying heavy or awkward loads.

OSHA recommends that employers establish a formal training program to recognize and avoid materials handling hazards. Training should emphasize the following:

* Dangers of improper lifting.
* Avoiding unnecessary physical stress and strain.
* Awareness of what a worker can handle without undue strain.
* Using equipment properly.
* Recognizing and correcting potential hazards.

Because back injuries are so common, training programs should also cover the following:

* Health risks of improper lifting, including case histories, compared to the benefits of proper lifting.
* Basic anatomy of the spine, muscles, and joints, and the contributions of intra-abdominal pressure while lifting.
* Body strengths and weaknesses--determining your lifting capacity.
* Physical factors that contribute to an accident and how to avoid the unexpected.
* Safe postures and timing for smooth, easy lifting.
* Aids including platforms, steps, shoulder pads, handles, and wheels.
* Recognizing body responses--warning signals--when lifting.

When moving materials manually, workers should attach handles or holders to loads, always wear appropriate personal protective equipment, and use proper lifting techniques. They should seek help when:

* A load is too bulky or heavy to safely grasp or lift it,
* They cannot see around or over a load, or
* They cannot safely handle a load.

Work Practice Controls
Administrative and work practice controls involve carefully selecting and training workers so they safely perform lifting tasks. These controls include:

* Strength testing of existing workers and offering work assignments that do not exceed their capabilities.
* Training employees to use lifting techniques that place minimal stress on their lower backs.
* Physical conditioning or stretching programs to reduce the risk of muscle strain.
* Use of two-person lift teams when mechanical lifts are not available.
* Observing micro-breaks to minimize muscle fatigue.

Other factors include frequency of lifting, duration of lifting activities, and type of lifting, as well as individual variables such as age, sex, body size, state of health, and general physical fitness.

Ergonomic Controls
Ergonomic controls might involve reducing the size or weight of the objects lifted, installing a mechanical lifting aid, or changing the height of a working surface. Although no single approach completely eliminates back injuries, you can reduce them by implementing an effective ergonomics program and teaching proper lifting techniques.

You also can evaluate lifting tasks for risk using the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lifting equation. The formula considers factors such as the height, weight, and frequency of lifts. You can find the manual for the lifting equation on the NIOSH Web site at

Common causes of back problems include:

* A worker unaccustomed to the task.
* Improper posture or position causing stress.
* The work approached the limit of the worker's strength.

Ergonomics risk factors can lead to musculoskeletal disorders. MSDs develop over time, and employees may ignore the warning signs, thinking they are normal aches and pains. The problems may become irreversible if the risk factors are not addressed.

OSHA's Ergonomic Risk Factors
Although the OSHA ergonomics rule was withdrawn, the risk factors given still provide guidance for identifying activities that may lead to injury. These include the following:

* Repeating the same motions every few seconds, or repeating a cycle of motions more than twice per minute, for more than two consecutive hours.
* Lifting more than 75 pounds at one time or more than 55 pounds more than 10 times per day.
* Lifting more than 25 pounds below the knees, above the shoulders, or at arms' length more than 25 times per day.
* Pushing or pulling with more than 20 pounds of initial force for more than two hours per day.
* Pinching an unsupported object of two or more pounds per hand, or using an equivalent force, for more than two hours per day.
* Gripping an unsupported object of 10 pounds or more per hand, or using an equivalent force, for more than two hours per day.
* Repeatedly raising or working with the hands above the head, or the elbow(s) above the shoulder(s), for more than two hours per day.
* Working with the back, neck, or wrists bent or twisted for more than two hours per day.
Consider implementing an ergonomic program or having a specialist evaluate workstations with a history of MSDs.

Make Sure the Techniques Are Used
You probably assess your facility for unstable stacks and racks, tripping hazards, and other material storage issues. You may even train employees in proper lifting. However, do you follow up to ensure those techniques are used consistently? Making regular checks to ensure that safe work practices are used is just as important as checking to ensure that safe storage methods are used.

If you maintain an injury and illness prevention program or a safety incentive program, emphasize safe working behavior as much as a safe working environment. Too often, these programs focus on numbers (number of injuries or days since last injury) and not enough on the behaviors that could prevent those injuries.

Experience shows that creating a safe work environment requires teamwork between employers and employees. Workers who are informed about safety issues, safe work practices, and their rights to a safe and healthful workplace are more likely to help identify and correct problems and to implement safety and health policies.

An effective safety and health program should persuade supervisors to control hazards and should hold them accountable for employee training. The program should motivate employees to make safe work practices a routine part of their jobs. Sometimes a simple change in standard operating procedures, or better enforcement of them, is sufficient. In most cases, training employees on workplace hazards and how to control them will greatly improve safety and health.

Employee Participation is Key
The BLS statistics given above include only lost time cases. When you consider how many sprain and strain injuries occur that do not involve lost time, the scope of the problem becomes apparent. These injuries end up on your OSHA 300 Log, drive up your worker's compensation rates, and create headaches for assigning light duty. Unless you get your employees to actually use safe work practices, however, your efforts may go unheeded. Remind employees that they control their own bodies. They are responsible for knowing what they can safely handle. They need to recognize warning signs (beyond minor muscle fatigue). If they suffer an injury, they are the ones who must live with it.

Causes of Sprains and Strains
* Single event: This category includes slips, trips, and falls. Other events include moving an object that is too heavy or using a "jerking" movement to pick up an object or start it moving.
Solutions include proper housekeeping to prevent tripping hazards, using proper lifting techniques or mechanical handling devices, and getting help from other employees.

* Repetitive motion: Performing the same motion over and over can cause injuries to develop. This includes bending, twisting, or other manual tasks.
Solutions include eliminating these repetitions as much as possible, implementing ergonomic programs, using properly designed tools, rotating job assignments to minimize exposure, and training employees to recognize warning signs.

* Other factors: Other causes of strains and sprains include working with heavy loads, working at improper heights, and working too quickly under time or production pressure. Solutions include ergonomic evaluations and emphasizing safety over speed. Let employees know that getting assistance is preferable to getting hurt.

This article appears in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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