Navigating Manual Handling Hazards: A Comprehensive Safety Guide

What is Manual Handling?

Manual handling encompasses various physical tasks like lifting, pushing, pulling, carrying, and moving objects, often using hand or body power. It’s a routine activity in numerous sectors, including manufacturing, construction, healthcare and agriculture.

It is estimated that manual handling injuries cost the Australian economy $28 billion every year, emphasising the significant financial impact of these injuries.

Data collected by SafeWork Australia from 2012-2015 reported that more than 145,000 workers were injured in New South Wales (NSW) workplaces due to manual handling, with 45% of non-disease related claims being injuries caused by manual handling.

According to Health and Safety Experts, this practice is contributing significantly to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and repetitive strain injuries. The inability to perform these tasks safely can result in severe consequences for both employers and employees, with the latter at risk of sustaining life altering injuries.

This guide delves into the critical aspects of manual handling, from understanding risks to implementing effective safety strategies, aiming to encourage and promote a safer and more productive work environment for everyone.

Hazardous manual handling

Manual handling becomes hazardous when it includes:

  • The use of repeated, sustained, or high levels of force
  • Maintaining awkward postures for extended periods
  • Engaging in repetitive motions
  • Being subjected to continuous vibration
  • Managing people or animals
  • Dealing with loads that are unstable, unbalanced, or difficult to grasp

The Importance of Training

Given the high stakes associated with manual handling, both employers and employees face serious repercussions if these tasks are not performed safely. Employees, in particular, risk sustaining life-altering injuries.

To mitigate these risks, proper manual handling training is essential. This training is not only crucial for new employees but also for experienced workers who can benefit from a manual handling refresher course to stay updated with the latest safety practices.

According to a study on manual handling activities and injuries among nurses in an Australian hospital, about two-thirds of all manual handling injuries were associated with direct patient care activities, with approximately one-third of all injuries being linked to lifting patients

This highlights that specialised education such as training for aged care is vital, considering the unique demands of sectors like these where heavy lifting is part and parcel of the job. By equipping workers with the right skills and knowledge, the risks associated with manual handling can be significantly reduced, ensuring a safer workplace for all.

The 4 Vital Areas of Manual Handling

back injuries from heavy lifting

Intensive manual work, continuous repetition of limb movements, and maintaining uncomfortable positions heighten the likelihood of injuries related to manual handling tasks. The four principal aspects of manual handling include:

  1. Task;
  2. Individual;
  3. Load; and
  4. Environment.

Commonly known as the acronym TILE, it can help assessors identify the risks associated with manual tasks.

  1. Task: The Nature of the Manual Handling ActivityThis critical aspect centres on the specific tasks an employee undertakes. It includes the sequence of actions necessary to complete a task, encompassing movements like pushing, pulling, lifting, and carrying objects, along with actions like bending or twisting. This evaluation aids in determining the needs of employees, ensuring they have sufficient time for rest and recovery.
  2. Person: The Individual and Their AbilityThis factor examines the personal capacity of each employee to execute the task. It’s crucial to consider individual characteristics, including age, existing health conditions or previous injuries, training received, strength, height, and flexibility.
  3. Object: The Item Being HandledWhen evaluating the load, focus extends beyond its weight to include size, shape, and surface characteristics. These elements can influence balance, grip, and visibility, potentially making the handling or transportation of the object challenging or hazardous.
  4. Setting: The Manual Handling EnvironmentAssessing the environment where the manual handling takes place is essential, particularly in confined spaces. Factors like uneven flooring can increase the risk of trips and accidents, including potential fatalities. Other environmental considerations, such as inadequate ventilation and weather conditions, can also impact the performance of those involved in manual handling tasks.

Legal Responsibilities

Legal responsibilities for manual handling and workplace safety

In Australia, the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) set forth specific responsibilities pertaining to hazardous manual handling. Employers bear the primary responsibility for ensuring a safe workplace and reducing manual handling injuries, with particular attention to hazardous manual handling. Their obligations include:

Employer Responsibilities:

  • Identifying tasks that involve hazardous manual handling.
  • Striving to eliminate musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risks associated with hazardous manual handling, or, when complete elimination isn’t feasible, reducing the risks to the lowest level practicable.

Duties of Manufacturers and Suppliers:

  • Providing guidance on the safe usage and upkeep of their products.

Consultation and Risk Management:

  • Employers are required to recognise hazardous manual handling tasks in the workplace and ensure their safety. This includes consulting with employees, evaluating risks, and addressing issues related to hazardous manual handling.

Additionally, the model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations mandate that those responsible for manual handling manage the risks of hazardous manual tasks to prevent MSDs when the tasks are performed as intended.

Five Key Tenets of Manual Handling

health and safety planning

Here are five key principles of manual handling to promote safer lifting techniques in the workplace:

  1. Planning – Prior to lifting or moving an object, it’s crucial to apply the TILE method for assessing the area. This helps determine whether the manual handling will require intense effort or cover long distances, allowing employees to plan for adequate rest and recovery intervals.
  2. Positioning – When loading an object, ensure it is balanced evenly and utilise handles to leverage the employee’s strength. Adopt a proper stance by standing with feet shoulder-width apart and aligning the body’s center as close as possible to the load before bending to lift.
  3. Picking Up – Use both hands for lifting whenever feasible, and keep the load aligned with the person’s torso in a neutral position before moving. Positioning a heavy load within the “power zone” – the area between the shoulders horizontally and between the middle of the thighs and center of the chest vertically – helps in avoiding awkward postures and reduces injury risk.
  4. Use mechanical aids whenever possible.
  5. Proceeding – Exercise caution when moving from one location to another. Employees should ensure a clear and unobstructed view of their path to prevent tripping during manual handling.
  6. Placing – Rather than dropping the load abruptly, place it down slowly, steadily, and smoothly upon reaching the destination to avoid unnecessary strain and injury. If possible, choose a convenient drop-off point to aid manual handlers in maintaining their rhythm and pace.

Identify and Address Hazardous Manual Handling Practices.


Engaging employees in discussions about health and safety can lead to a more secure work environment. This is why active consultation is a critical component of risk management. In specific circumstances, it’s essential for employers to involve their employees and health and safety representatives (HSRs), if available, in conversations about health and safety matters.

Locate the Hazards

Locate all work activities that entail risky manual handling tasks. Remember, not every manual handling task is hazardous. Some instances of hazardous manual handling are:

  • Transferring heavy and bulky grain sacks
  • Operating a jackhammer
  • Spending extended periods typing at a cramped desk
  • Utilising tin snips with widely spaced grips
  • Navigating a fully laden trolley through a crowded warehouse

Conduct a Risk Assessment

Next, it’s important to evaluate the potential risk of hazardous manual handling leading to a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). A formal risk assessment may not be necessary if information on the risk and its control measures already exists.

The combination of forces, postures, movements, and vibrations can escalate the injury risk. For instance, picking up a box from the ground requires more back bending and twisting compared to lifting it from a bench at mid-thigh height. The longer the duration of the task, the higher the risk becomes. Environmental elements such as temperature, cold, and levels of lighting also play a role in increasing risk.

Work-related stress can also contribute to the development of MSDs. Factors like high job demands, limited job control, and inadequate support can influence how a person performs their job.

Control Hazardous Manual Handling Risks

Follow this checklist to mitigate risks associated with hazardous manual handling, as outlined by the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations). These regulations prescribe a sequence of risk control measures, known as the hierarchy of control.

  1. Eliminate the Risk: The primary goal is to completely eradicate the action that could lead to injury. For instance, opt for bulk bags of materials that require a forklift for handling, thereby removing the need for manual lifting.
  2. Modify the Workplace or Work: Lessen the risk by making alterations to aspects such as the layout of the workplace, the environment, or the systems of work. This could also involve changing the equipment used or incorporating mechanical aids. Examples include adjusting the height of a bench, using different tools for handling loads, or rearranging the workflow.
  3. Educate Employees: Provide your employees with information, instructions, or training focused on minimising the risk of injuries. This involves teaching them safe handling techniques and best practices for avoiding hazardous situations.

Review Risk Control Measures

Ensure to regularly evaluate your risk control strategies to confirm their effectiveness. It’s crucial to review and, if necessary, modify them in situations such as:

  • When there are alterations in the equipment used or changes in work processes.
  • Upon receiving updated information about hazardous manual handling.
  • Following the reporting of an injury or an incident that requires notification.
  • Upon request from a Health and Safety Representative (HSR).

In Summary

employees happy with appropriate mechanical aids

“Navigating Manual Handling Hazards” highlights the crucial need for effective and safe manual handling practices in Australian workplaces. Emphasising risk awareness, this guide advocates for strategies such as TILE adherence, understanding legal responsibilities, conducting risk assessments implementing control measures, and engaging in proper training.

Implementing these measures not only minimises the risk of injuries and disorders but also enhances overall workplace efficiency and safety. The essence of managing safety hazards lies in ongoing education, evaluation, and adaptation, ensuring the health and safety of all employees.