The guide to safe manual handling in the workplace

When you’re a small business owner, it can feel like you’ve got the weight of the world on the shoulders and that you’re doing all the heavy lifting to make the business a success.

Sometimes of course that’s literally the case – and lifting and carrying heavy objects day in and day out can have serious implications for you, your staff and your business.

In 2018, 21% of claims reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) were related to lifting and handling accidents. And an estimated 1.6 million working days are lost due to manual handling injuries each year, with 10.8 days lost for each injury on average.

Lifting, pushing and pulling can come part and parcel with any type of occupation, from bricklayers to beauticians and from couriers to cleaners. If your small business requires any form of manual handling, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you and your staff are doing so safely. Failure to protect your staff could put them at risk of injury and could leave you with a hefty claim on your hands.

So read our guide to make sure that you, your staff and your small business are being safe when performing any manual handling task.

What is manual handling?

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 define manual handling as ‘any transporting or supporting of a load by hand or bodily force’.

Common types of manual handling include any lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, restraining, throwing and carrying that you or your staff may need to do as part of the day to day running of your small business.

The load can be any object, person or animal and can apply to most business types, from builders to dog walkers and anything in between.

Why is safe manual handling important?

Manual handling is common in businesses of all types, and so too are the associated injuries that can come from improper or unsafe manual handling actions.

The most common injuries associated with manual handling are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), including pain or injury to arms, legs and joints. Back and shoulder strains are very common too, as well as repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

Manual handling injuries can occur almost anywhere in the workplace, but heavy manual labour, awkward postures, repetitive movements of arms, legs and back or previous/existing injury can increase the risk. However, many manual handling type injuries can be caused by smaller tasks like packing, typing, cleaning, operating machinery or equipment, or dealing with animals. Because most jobs involve some form of manual handling, most businesses and workers are at some level of risk.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stats suggest that more than a third of injuries in the workplace are due to manual handling—often because the people doing the handling aren't following the correct procedures.

These injuries can have serious implications not only for the person who has been injured, but of their employer too, who may be faced with a costly claim.

How to reduce instances of manual handling

It’s said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s the case with manual handling too. The best way to avoid manual handling injuries is to avoid manual handling – where possible – in the first place.

So before jumping in to the manual handling task, always assess the situation first and ask yourself some of the questions below to determine the best, and safest, course of action:

  • What’s the weight of the load to be carried?
  • Can I move the load safely or do I need any help?
  • Can it be broken down to smaller, lighter components or a few different trips?
  • Am I required to lift from floor level or above shoulder height?
  • Do I need to use lifting equipment, such as a forklift, hoist or conveyor?
  • Can I reduce the amount of twisting, stooping and reaching to perform this task?
  • Can I minimise the carrying distance, or move obstacles in my way?
  • Can I adjust the storage areas to minimise the need to carry out this task in future?

In some cases or in some job roles, avoiding manual handling just isn’t an option. So if you need to carry out manual handling tasks, how do you do so safely?

How to perform manual handling safely

First thing’s first – make sure that you and your employees are up to speed on the approved and agreed guidelines.

If your place of business performs manual handling actions regularly, your staff must be given proper training on the appropriate lifting techniques from a knowledgeable provider. For our customers, AXA recommends manual handling training partner Pristine Condition International. The latest guidance should also be displayed visually in the workplace as a helpful guide and reference point.

If possible, keep health and safety training records to help you keep track of whether staff are aware of existing and new safety measures introduced to your business, and regularly retrain and revisit staff training records to ensure they’re always up to date.

As a general rule, always ask new employees to complete a pre-employment medical questionnaire, to help determine if have they had any previous back/neck problems you need to be aware of that may cause difficulties when performing any manual handling tasks.  

And for any member of staff expected to perform any manual handling work, consider the individual’s capabilities. Age, gender or physical condition will all affect a person’s capacity and what is reasonable for one person may not be for another.

So what’s the best way to avoid a manual handling injury? Here’s ten tips to safe manual handling:

1. Think before you lift

Plan the lift in advance and perform a risk assessment. Could you use a lifting aid, like a hoist or forklift? Where is the object or load going to be placed? Is there a clear path between here and there? How long will the lift last, and is there a suitable mid-way break to reduce exertion? Ask these questions first to ensure the lift and carry is planned accordingly.

2. Use a safe lifting position

A safe lifting position is all about stability and the right distribution of weight. At the start of the lift, your feet should be shoulder-width apart with one leg slightly forward to maintain balance. Make sure your clothing and footwear are suitable for the task too, as you don’t want to trip on a loose shoelace or have an item of clothing caught on a door handle, causing you to fall or drop the load.

3. Get a good grip

Hold on tight and make sure the load is secure before attempting to lift it. Where possible, try to hug the object as close to your body as you can for as long as you can, as this can give you more purchase than gripping it tightly with just your hands.

4.Keep the load close to your waist

Keeping the object at waist-level heaviest side of the load next to your body, should help with an even weight distribution.

5. Don’t lift with your back

Probably the most common lifting advice: lift with your legs, not your back. Your legs are stronger, so bend your knees and squat down to lift any load from the ground, not your back.

6. Avoid twisting

When lifting or carrying, your shoulders should be kept level and facing the same direction as your hips. If you need to turn, change the direction of your feet instead of twisting and lifting at the same time, which has the potential for greater injury.

7. Look up

Look ahead at where you’re going, and not down at your feet or what you’re holding. This will help you anticipate any obstacles and make the overall lift safer.

8. Move smoothly

If you can, try to move as smoothly as possible while lifting and carrying. Rocky or jerking movements can make the object harder to control, leading to drops or falls that can increase the risk of an injury.

9. Don’t lift more than necessary

There’s often a big difference between what people think they can lift, what they can actually lift and what they can safely lift. If in any doubt, seek advice, use a lifting aid or get help.

10. Put it down, then adjust

If precise positioning of the load is necessary, put it down first, then slide it into the desired position. Don’t try to put the object down in a very precise position or hold on to it any longer than necessary.

What to do in the event of a manual handling accident

Accidents and injuries can happen. Things can go wrong, circumstances change, and sometimes, even though every rule and procedure has been followed correctly, an injury can still occur. So if there’s been an accident or injury at your place of work as a result of manual handling, what do you do?

 Get help quickly

Firstly, in all circumstances, the priority is the health of the person injured. Call an ambulance or seek medical attention immediately.

 Complete an Accident Form

You should always complete an Accident Form and ask the injured person to sign it. Reporting certain work-related incidents is a legal requirement, and provides an accurate overview of events to help identify how they arose and whether they need to be investigated. Keep these records in all cases.

 Take photographs

Take photographs of the area of the accident, including the item that was lifted, the ground and surrounding area and any equipment used. This will help build an accurate image of the situation and the events which led to the injury. You should also ask any witnesses to write down their account of the event, and ask them to sign this too.

 Inform your insurer

You should also make your insurer aware of the incident too. If your employee has been injured while performing a manual handing task at work, employers’ liability insurance can cover the damages, compensation costs and legal fees that could result from the injury. It’s a legal requirement for a business to have this cover for their employees, self-employed contractors or temporary staff and apprentices. However if you or a key partner in your business has been injured, Personal Accident cover can provide financial support while the injured person is unable to work.

 Help them get the help they need

In the event of an injury, immediate help might be calling a first-aider on ambulance, but you should also consider more long-term help and assistance to get yourself or your employee back to full fitness as quickly as is safely possible.

If you, a partner or an employee suffers an injury as a result of manual handling, time off might be required, meaning the business could be a person down. Your business might have to pay for cover, or have others in the team pick up the extra work, which can cause strains of their own.

Rehabilitation, occupational health advice or physiotherapy, or even some at-home exercises can help people dealing with back pain get back on their feet, meaning less pain for the injured party and less pain for your business too.


For more information about claims, visit AXA’s guide to making claims clear.

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