Manual Handling: An Overview


Published: 16 September 2019

What is Manual Handling?

Manual handling includes any activity carried out in the workplace that requires the use of force. It encompasses acts such as:

  • Lifting;
  • Pushing;
  • Lowering;
  • Pulling;
  • Moving;
  • Holding;
  • Restraining;
  • Throwing; and
  • Carrying.

(Education and Training Victoria 2018; Better Health Channel 2017)

safe manual handling man using assistive lifting device
If possible, lighten loads by breaking them into smaller quantities.

How Common are Manual Handling Injuries?

Statistics reveal that of all types of workplace injuries captured in 2017–18, lifting, pushing, pulling or bending accounted for 24%, making manual handling the most commonly reported work-related injury (ABS 2018).

Note: the intention of this article is to provide an overview of manual handling, however, further reading is essential. Refer to the resources listed at the end of the article for more information. It is crucial that you receive appropriate, practical manual handling training and supervision from your facility. You must also follow workplace policies and procedures and be familiar with relevant state/federal Legislation.

Manual handling relates to Aged Care Quality Standards: Standard 5 - Organisation's Service Environment and Standard 8 - Organisational Governance specifically 8(3)a, 8(3)d.

Manual Handling Risks in Healthcare

  • Hazardous manual tasks are the largest cause of occupational injury to nurses and midwives.
  • Musculoskeletal injuries from patient handling account for a considerable number of manual handling injuries to nurses, midwives and other healthcare workers.
  • Insured and uninsured costs of manual handling tasks add significantly to the cost of providing health, aged care and community services.
  • A large proportion of manual task-related injuries are preventable.
  • Shoulder and back injuries incurred by nurses and midwives often result in long-term or permanent disability.

(NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association 2017; WorkCover Queensland 2019b)

Manual handling can result in significant or irreversible injuries, particularly musculoskeletal injuries, which may include:

  • Soft tissue injuries;
  • Nerve damage or compression;
  • Back and neck injuries;
  • Bone and joint injuries to hands, feet, shoulder, wrist, hip, knee, ankle etc;
  • Ligament and tendon damage;
  • Muscle sprains and strains;
  • Chronic pain; and
  • Acute pain.

(de-Vitry Smith 2018; WHO 2019)

Factors related to manual handling tasks that increase the risk of injury:

  • Shift work, or any work in which you are in a fixed posture for an extended amount of time.
  • Fatigue, which may also be impacted by your type of work.
  • Older age and other factors that reduce physical ability.
  • Previous injury, poor health or a generally low level of fitness.
  • Poor workplace design, e.g. one that is cramped or poorly laid out.
  • The object being moved is in an inconvenient location and of considerable weight.
  • Loads are awkward to grasp and therefore move.
  • Inadequate or no training is provided and staffing is low.
  • Handling a person is involved, therefore the likelihood of strain is increased.

(Better Health Channel 2018; de-Vitry Smith 2018)

safe manual handling man using assistive lifting device
Likelihood of injury is increased when handling or lifting a person is involved.

Managing Manual Handling Risks

Abide by these four steps to effectively manage hazards associated with manual handling tasks:

1. Identify hazards

  • Inspect the workplace;
  • List the hazards you find;
  • Talk to other workers; and
  • Review information about workplace injuries and incidents.

2. Assess the risk(s)

Identify the following in relation to the task:

  • Its weight;
  • The movements involved;
  • The duration of the task;
  • Whether the task requires high or sudden force; and
  • Whether the task involves vibration.

3. Control the risk(s)

In order of highest to lowest level of hazard prevention, apply the following:

  • Elimination;
  • Substitution;
  • Isolation;
  • Engineering;
  • Administrative; and
  • Personal protective equipment.

4. Review risk control

Implemented control measures should be reviewed and, if necessary, revised

(WorkCover Queensland 2019a)

Methods to Preventing Injury During Manual Handling

  • Explore ways to minimise lifting heavy items;
  • If possible, lighten loads by breaking them into smaller quantities;
  • Prevent muscle strain and fatigue. This includes warming up before working, taking rest breaks, and allowing time to get used to a new task.
  • Move your feet rather than twisting your back, reduce or avoid bending, twisting, reaching movements;
  • During long shifts change tasks so as to give specific muscles a break;
  • Try not to rush due to lack of time, competing demands, lack of staff or patient needs, you should value your own safety;
  • Use the appropriate equipment and assistive devices correctly, use mechanical aids when possible;
  • Do not use poorly maintained equipment or equipment you have not been trained for;
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help and use teamwork;
  • Watch out for, and support peers to care for themselves in the workplace;
  • Attend and advocate for regular training on manual handling;
  • Abide by workplace manual handling policies and guidelines;
  • Abide by the principles of proper body alignment and body mechanics;
  • Learn how to recognise activities that have the potential for injury and act to reduce the risk; and
  • Avoid performing high-risk activities.

(Worksafe New Zealand; de-Vitry Smith 2018; Education and Training Victoria 2018)

Always question procedures and practices that seem outdated, don’t be afraid to speak up if you perceive a risk to you or your coworkers.

employer shows employee safe manual handling technique to prevent or limit risk of injury
Abide by the principles of proper body alignment and body mechanics.

Review Relevant State/Federal Legislation

You should be familiar with (and thus refer to) relevant state/federal Legislation that stipulates the roles of both employers and employees.

All workplaces should have policies and procedures on manual handling and hazard, incident and injury reporting. The Work Health and Safety (WH&S) Act (2011) applies to employees and employers. Breaches of duty under the work health and safety legislation could result in penalties.

Disclaimer: This article is to be used in conjunction with your organisation’s policies and procedures regarding manual handling. This article does not replace the theory of mandatory training regarding manual handling from your organisation. Appropriate theoretical and practical training of manual handling in your workplace should be provided by your employer.

Additional Resources


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