Employers should train workers on proper lifting techniques, helping even younger employers to understand the importance of preventing injuries and the cumulative damage that poor lifting techniques can cause.

Preventing Manual Handling Injuries

There is no question that musculoskeletal disorders continue to be a leading cause of lost-time injuries among U.S. workers.

We begin with two facts from the pages of the National Safety Council's Injury Facts, 2015 edition:

  • In 2012, overexertion and bodily reaction were the leading cause of lost-time occupational injuries, accounting for 36.6 percent of all lost-time nonfatal cases, even more than slips, trips, and falls (24.2 percent).
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the back was the body part most frequently affected in 2012 private-sector injuries involving days away from work. Back injuries accounted for 19.6 percent of those 905,690 injuries, significantly higher than hand (13.4 percent), shoulder (7.5 percent), knee (8.5 percent), or head (5.0 percent).

Total time lost to work-related injuries in 2013 was 60 million days, and another 35 million days of productive time were lost in that year because of permanently disabling injuries that had occurred in prior years, according to this source.

Manual material handling can lead to fatigue and to injury, especially when a worker performs the tasks repeatedly or for long periods of time. NIOSH and other authorities report the main risk factors leading to injuries in manual material handling tasks include awkward postures, repetitive motions, forceful exertions, and static postures.

Employers should train workers on proper lifting techniques, helping even younger employees to understand the importance of preventing injuries and the cumulative damage that poor lifting techniques can cause, but this is only part of the solution. Employers and safety managers also should redesign their site's work flow to eliminate unnecessary manual lifts and consider using simple devices such as dollies or carts, as well as vacuum assist equipment, lift tables, conveyors, winches, and hoists. Job hazard analysis and having workers regularly follow a stretching regimen and use safe lifting techniques are cornerstones of a prevention strategy.

Recommendations for Lifting Safely
"Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling," a 2007 guide created by NIOSH, Cal/OSHA, CNA Insurance Cos., and the Material Handling Industry of America, includes these safe lifting recommendations for employees:

  • Use stretching as part of a comprehensive ergonomic program.
  • Before lifting, always test the load for stability and weight.
  • For loads that are unstable and/or heavy, follow management guidelines for equipment use, reducing the weight of the load, and repacking containers to increase stability

In addition, plan the lift:

  • Wear appropriate shoes to avoid slips, trips, or falls.
  • If you wear gloves, choose the size that fits properly.
  • Lift only as much as you can safely handle by yourself.
  • Keep the lifts in your power zone (i.e., above the knees, below the shoulders, and close to the body), if possible.
  • Use extra caution when lifting loads that may be unstable.

When lifting:

  • Get a secure grip.
  • Use both hands whenever possible.
  • Avoid jerking by using smooth, even motions.
  • Keep the load as close to the body as possible.
  • To the extent feasible, use your legs to push up and lift the load, not the upper body or back.
  • Do not twist your body. Step to one side or the other to turn.
  • Alternate heavy lifting or forceful exertion tasks with less physically demanding tasks.
  • Take rest breaks.

Preventing MSDs
OSHA's ergonomics topic page describes a seven-step process for preventing workplace musculoskeletal disorders, and there is no question that MSDs continue to be a leading cause of lost-time injuries. Musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 33 percent of the 1,162,210 lost-time injury and illness cases in 2013 in private industry, state government, and local government, BLS reported in December 2014.

Nursing assistants as well as laborers and freight, stock, and material movers incurred the highest number of MSD cases in 2013, but they were only two of the 11 occupational categories with a higher incidence rate of lost-time musculoskeletal disorders that year than the overall incidence rate of nonfatal occupational injury and illness cases requiring days away from work to recuperate, which was 109.4 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in 2013, according to BLS.

The seven steps described by OSHA as important elements of an ergonomics process are:
1. Provide management support, with a strong commitment by management being critical to the overall success of the process.
2. Involve workers in hazard assessments, solution development, and also implementation.
3. Provide training so that workers are aware of ergonomics’ benefits and will know why is it important to report early symptoms of MSDs.
4. Identify ergonomic problems in the workplace before they result in MSDs.
5. Encourage early reporting of symptoms, which is important for preventing serious injuries and lost-time claims.
6. Implement solutions to control the hazards.
7. Evaluate your progress periodically to ensure continuous improvement and long-term success.

1. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2007-131/pdfs/2007-131.pdf
2. http://www.dir.ca.gov/DOSH/etools/08-004/index.htm
3. https://libertymmhtables.libertymutual.com/CM_LMTablesWeb/taskSelection.do?action=initTaskSelection
4. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/index.html
5. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/osh2.t18.htm

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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