Manual handling is one of the most common causes of injury at the workplace and results in over a third of all workplace injuries. Injuries which traditionally we believe that basic employee awareness in the form of manual handling training should be more than enough to eliminate forever!
When planning employee or contractor training for any organization, given the commonality of the injuries, we often find that manual handling awareness programs are one of the first programs in any company training matrix.
While most health and safety professionals will still go through the motions when it comes to assessing the risks of such activities, using the hierarchy of controls to eliminate, substitute or engineer the required precautions, we find that we are often stuck with some of the lesser manual handling tasks where further elimination is impractical. For those situations we offer manual handling training in an attempt to bring a change in behaviour within our workforce, hoping this will completely prevent such injuries from occurring again. A quick, easy and cheap solution compared with more complex controls such as redesigning processes.
Manual handling training still remains as popular as ever, as It seems to be an obvious way to control those risks that we could not engineer out of some of our repetitive workplace tasks. Since we can teach people complex physical skills such as swimming and driving, one would think that we should be able to easily teach them to lift and carry objects safely as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to changing people’s behaviors, things are never that simple, and the bad news is, our one time manual handling training has likely contributed very little to actually minimizing the risk of sustaining a manual handling injury at work.
A twelve year old research on “Training as a control measure for manual handling risks” conducted by Loughborough University back in 2006 found little evidence that manual handling training was actually effective at reducing the risk of MSDs. It even went as far as highlighting that many of the practical measures practiced in such training could not often be applied in workplace situations. A predicament which I am sure many of us have seen throughout our careers.
The research, at the time, prompted the HSE to review a number of its recommendations and make a number of changes to ensure it stays relevant and in line with the recent study.
Since then, more than fifty individual high level studies worldwide have taken place assessing the effectiveness of manual handling training in preventing back injuries, general musculoskeletal health and changing workplace behaviours towards manual handling. The main common finding from all of those researches was how little the effect of manual handling training in reducing actual workplace incidents was, although many of them did mention an increase in the overall awareness of the subject.
Yet, till this day, in many organizations, a strong focus on manual handling training seems to be the only recommendation when it comes to injury prevention efforts. Considerations need to be viewed more holistically as part of a comprehensive task based risk assessment and focusing on a single intervention at the bottom of the hierarchy of control (e.g. training in handling techniques) will always be unlikely to control the majority of the risks.
Organizations that have reported significant reductions in manual handling injuries are known to consider more of a coaching approach to manual handling. They train their supervisors on manual handling extensively and in turn, the supervisors deliver site and task specific manual handling training as part of their job pre-task talks. They also use behavioural based safety programs to coach and advise workers on the correct methods of work enforcing both good manual handling practices and eliminating at risk occurrences.
Technology has also played a big role in reducing such risks, systems from Heddoko in Canada and Dorsa VI in the UK can incorporate sensors that measure movement as well as muscle activity with pads worn on an employee’s back. The activity data is collected in real time and can be analyzed to identify challenging or sustained postures or repetitive movements, providing evidence for task redesign. Subsequent research into the technology has shown that people who learned not to twist reported significantly fewer low back injuries than ones who were still twisting and had not used the technology.
The HSE’s message continues to be that risks from manual handling must be controlled and that duty holders should eliminate the risk at source where possible. Training in manual handling techniques has a place as part of wider safety training in a workplace once risks have been reduced as far as is reasonably practicable. But using it as your main control measure is likely to be ineffective and generally prove to be a poor investment.