What Is a Safe Lift?

What Is a Safe Lift?

When training is done well, in combination with engineering controls, it is a very effective way to reduce back injuries and create safer lifting environments.

Back injuries are a significant cost driver for school districts. They often result from overexertion, typically resulting from an injury sustained from lifting, pulling, pushing, and carrying an object -- an injury classified as a sprain or strain.

Injuries come from grounds workers lifting and lowering mowing equipment off trucks, employees lifting special needs students who have fallen or lifting/lowering them to and from wheelchairs, nutrition services workers who retrieve food containers from bottom shelves multiple times a day, or custodians who are injured from emptying trash cans in the cafeteria. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), including back injuries, account for more than one out of every three work-related injuries in the United States.

As back injuries continue to rise, efforts are made to train employees in proper lifting techniques to reduce the frequency and severity of these injuries, especially in maintenance and operations, custodial, grounds work, food services, Child Development Centers, and Special Education. Recommendations on safe lifting and are some practical ways to make all lifting activities safer have followed these concerns.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health researched this topic and offered recommended weight limits and a calculator to estimate a "safe" lift. This information can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh. Another good source for lifting limits can be found in the Evaluation Tools page linked to the Washington State website http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Ergonomics/.

As a basic starting point, one person should be able to lift an object weighing up to 51 pounds:

  • If the object is within 7 inches from the front of his or her body.
  • If the object is at waist height and directly in front of the person.
  • If there is no twisting involved.
  • If there is a handle on the object.
  • If the load inside doesn't shift once lifted.

If any of the conditions listed above is not met, then the load would be considered "unsafe," and modifications must be made to make it a "safe" lift.

In order to make it a safe lift:

  • The weight of the load must be decreased, or
  • It needs to be a "two-person" lift, or
  • Mechanical assistance must be used (dolly, cart, lift, etc.).

Reducing Lifting Exposures
Reducing exposures for any type of injury requires that a change be made to the job task or work environment to achieve a positive outcome. This might include different tools or equipment to make the job easier, alternating the work process or flow to allow more breaks (recovery), or training employees on better ways to lift. Cal/OSHA's regulation, 5110, details three control methods for reducing repetitive motion injuries.

Engineering controls: These would include physical changes or modifications to the workstations, tools, or equipment to make the job safer. Typically, engineering controls require an out-of-pocket budgetary commitment but have the highest rate of success for creating a safer work environment. Examples include:

  • Using truck ramps on ground crews' trucks that can be used to remove the mower and edger more safely than lifting them off the truck.
  • Use of a hand truck or cart to move food products from the freezer to the kitchen, rather than manually carrying them.
  • Purchasing smaller trash cans in cafeterias to create smaller loads.
  • Funding lift assist equipment in Special Ed classrooms for students who are non-ambulatory and require assistance for toileting.
  • Longer handles on equipment that would eliminate poor back postures while working, or raising the height of a work surface to reduce the amount of forward bending as employees work on materials.

Administrative controls: Rather than purchase new products, tools, or equipment, administrative controls focus on reducing the exposure time with lifting hazards. Administrative controls might include a "work hardening" program for jobs that require intense lifting, job rotation to give the back a rest period, expanding the job duties of the worker to reduce repetitive lifting, etc. These types of controls do not have the success rate allowed through engineering controls but, instead, offer ways to prevent a fatigue-related injury or accident. For example:

  • Offer a work hardening program for employees returning to work following an injury, or for all new hires, in order to condition them slowly into the job. Many custodians are injured during intense summer cleaning activities in their districts. A work hardening program may be a good administrative control to slowly condition their back muscles for the heavy-duty summer months of cleaning.
  • Another option would be to expand the job of warehouse workers to include some paperwork or housekeeping duties with less lifting to allow for a work-related recovery period from repetitive lifting.
  • Cross-training employees so workers can rotate between jobs requiring intense lifting activities with jobs that do not require this. Reorganizing the order in which tasks are performed also might prevent a fatigue-related injury or accident.

Training: When training is done well, in combination with engineering controls, it is a very effective way to reduce back injuries and create safer lifting environments. Training should focus on educating workers and managers about potential risks for back injuries due to unsafe lifting, their causes, and symptoms, as well as offering solid lifting techniques and proficiency stations.

One has to be cautious of behavior-based safety training programs that place responsibility for safe lifting entirely on the employee. Without engineering controls in place, many lifts are dangerous regardless of how well trained the employees are: lifting from floor level, lifting equipment over the sides of trucks, lifting students from wheelchairs alone, etc. When environments are not set up ergonomically and workloads are doubled, old habits quickly return and injuries occur.

Key points:

  • Training should provide education on safe lifting techniques, proper body mechanics, how to spot risk factors, how to improve work environments with engineering and administrative controls, and, most important, how to make an unsafe lift safer.
  • Training should encourage and welcome feedback from employees, who often know best how to improve unsafe lifting environments. Encourage employees to come to management when they recognize a hazard so a solution can be found together.
  • Training should be provided when any new engineering control has been put in place so all employees know how to work and lift safely.

Best Practices
Identifying the job areas where injuries are occurring is imperative. If injuries are occurring to custodians as they lift the trash cans in school cafeterias, that is where you need to start. Once you've looked over your OSHA 300 logs and workers' comp claim data and have listened to employee complaints, identify what the task is asking of the employee, consider engineering controls first, and then consider administrative/training controls that will make the lifting task safer.

Let's take the task of custodians lifting trash cans in school cafeterias. Here are some possible solutions:

Engineering controls:

  • Break down the load by placing several small trash receptacles (25 gallons or less) in the same area or increase the number of trash cans to make the weight of each trash can lighter.
  • Create a ramp that goes up to the main trash bin. Place the lunch trash receptacles on rollers and wheel them to the trash bin and up the ramp without having to pick up the bags.

Administrative controls:

  • Many districts have students eat lunch first and then be released to recess after. One district has the students go to recess first so the students work up an appetite and then releases them to lunch. District officials found better results with less food waste.
  • Empty the trash cans more often.
  • Allow only one-third of the trash liner to be filled. After that, place another trash liner in the can. In essence, you end up with three trash liners for every one can.


  • Take the opportunity to listen to the custodians and hear their suggestions for this task. They are more likely to accept the solution if it comes from them.
  • Train them on proper lifting techniques and work practices. Train them on principles of good body mechanics for use at work and at home.
  • Remember, old practices die hard. It takes a while to create a new habit. Work with supervisors to continuously encourage proper lifting and continued use of new measures implemented to create a safer lifting environment.

In a perfect world, a "safe" lift would be 51 pounds if the object is within 7 inches from the front of the body, if it is at waist height, if it is directly in front of the person, if there is a handle on the object, and if the load inside the box/bucket doesn't shift once lifted.

If the load to be lifted does not meet all of these criteria, then it is an unsafe lift, and modifications must be made. Modifications would include lightening the load, getting help, or using a mechanical lifting device. There is always a way to turn an unsafe lift into a safer lift.

An excellent resource for anyone interested in eliminating some of the hazards associated with lifting is the "Easy Ergonomics" publication from Cal/OSHA. This booklet offers practical advice on how to improve the workplace using engineering and administrative controls, problem-solving strategies and solutions, and a vast amount of ergonomics information and resources. "Easy Ergonomics" can be obtained by calling Cal/OSHA's education and training unit in Sacramento at 800-963-9424. A free copy can be obtained via www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/puborder.asp.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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