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Reducing Hazards Associated with Manual Handling of Materials in the Construction Workplace

16 November 2021

This month’s column is inspired by materials I found online, published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.  OSHA’s construction standards do not have a subpart dedicated specifically to ergonomic approaches to prevent or ameliorate lower back pain (which, in Europe, is said to be the #1 item among reported work-related disorders).

Although apparently this isn’t an OSHA compliance issue, your company would do well to carry out assessments of how tasks are performed, provide training to your employees, and act to protect employees from cumulative harm to the musculoskeletal system over months and years of repetitive lifting and handling activities on the jobsite.

Generally described, your company should be doing the following:

  • Designing and organizing tasks to avoid, or limit, the handling of materials manually;
  • Employing automation and lifting devices;
  • Where repeated lifting and manual handling cannot be avoided, organizing the work in a safe way, by dividing larger loads into smaller ones, providing rest periods, etc.;
  • Training employees in the correct handling of materials, including the opportune use of equipment, and how frequently-.required tasks should be performed.

“Manual handling” can be defined as supporting or transporting a load by lifting, holding, putting down, pushing, pulling, carrying, or moving it.  In the EU at least, just under two-thirds of  all workers spend at least a quarter of their working hours performing such tasks, and (in addition to fatigue) two varieties of injuries may result.  One includes sudden events, such as cuts, bruises, fractures, and the like, and the other variety involves damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, joints, bursa (the small, fluid-filled sacs that reduce friction between moving parts in the body’s joints), blood vessels and nerves.

What are referred to as musculoskeletal disorders are divisible into three groups: neck and upper limb disorders; lower limb disorders, and  back injuries and back pain.  Most people experience lower back pain to some extent by age thirty, and between one-quarter and one-half of construction workers complain of it.

The factors that make manual handling more or less hazardous fall into four groups:  the load, the task, the environment, and the individual.  The risk of back injury increases if the load is too heavy (20-25 lbs. is heavy for most people, especially if the load must be handled repeatedly), too large, difficult to reach or to grasp, unbalanced, or contains items within that move around.  A basic rule is that items should be lifted and carried as close to the body as possible.

Pushing and pulling generally impose fewer stresses on the body than lifting and carrying. Unbalanced loads are difficult to support, and sudden movement can throw the bearer off-balance.  Gloves, handles, or other aids for gripping can make it easier to maintain one’s grasp.  Loads that can only be reached with outstretched arms, or by bending or twisting the torso, may harm the spine, and carrying loads with sharp edges or dangerous materials is also to be avoided.

As for “the task,” the same can be very rigorous, if carried out over and ever for too long a period, or at a tempo that cannot be varied by the worker, or without sufficient rest periods.

The “environment“ means factors such as the space available to carry out the handling, the condition of the floor or working level, climate, and illumination.  If a large load must be hefted in a tight space, awkward body postures may be required, which can require joints to be held close to their maximum range of movement, or result a heavier load on the joints and spine and increased fatigue.

If the flooring is wet, uneven, or subject to moving (e.g., the deck of a fishing boat) handling materials becomes more difficult, and accidents more likely. Temperature, humidity, and ventilation affect a worker’s ability to carry out handling operations, especially if the same are to be repeated over the course of the workday. Poor lighting may increase the risk of an accident, or require the employee to work in awkward positions.

Naturally, individual factors also affect the likelihood of back injuries or other bad outcomes from handling operations.  An employee’s size, fitness, strength, lifestyle, age, medical history, experience, training, familiarity with the job and the tasks to be performed, and willingness to use personal protective equipment all affect his or her ability to perform handling operations, and prospects of avoiding injury while doing so.

Your company should carry out a risk assessment, or examination of potential hazards from manual handling operations,  Consider carefully tasks, and locations where they are performed, that could produce accidents, injuries, or poor health. Evaluate whether procedures and precautions in place are sufficient to minimize risks of harm, and what additional measures might be taken.

Among other things, you should consider the practicability of eliminating the “manual” element of at least some manual handling, and reduce or avoid altogether employees having to lift, carry and move things, by instead using devices such as conveyor belts, lift trucks, electric hoists, or a gravity-powered roller track.  Due consideration should be given to the potential downside, however (e.g., possible noise or hand-arm vibration hazards) from any alternatives being considered.

If the elimination of manual handling is not possible, or technical measures are ineffective in reducing the risks, you should next consider organizational or administrative measures.  For example,   heavier items could be lifted or carried by two people instead of one, or amounts to be handled could be reduced, or loads split into two or more smaller ones.

The pace of manual handling should not be set by a machine, supervisor, or co-workers.  The time for performing manual handling tasks should be extended by providing for breaks, or by alternating such tasks with other tasks, to allow muscles time to recover.

Pretty much all construction employees, even those who infrequently have to perform manual handling, should be trained in the correct techniques for lifting and carrying, and for pushing and pulling devices such as barrows and trolleys.

If your company has employees who must frequently perform manual handling, I commend to you NIOSH Publication No. 2007-131, “Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling,” which you can download online.  It contains a wealth of information that will make their lives easier, more productive, and less painful.

I conclude this month’s installment .on .a personal note.  After 15 years of working on these articles, next month’s column will be my last for Construction News.  My deep thanks to my readers, and to George Drapeau and John Jordan, my editors.  Stay safe, everyone!

Geoffrey S. Pope, an attorney, is counsel to the construction law firm of Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP, with its main office in White Plains.  The articles in this series do not constitute legal advice, and are intended for general guidance only.