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manual handling

When you’re lifting, or stacking, or moving things about, you’re not just using your hands. You’re using all the tools at your disposal, all the muscles, joints and ligaments in your body.

People with manual handling tasks use these tools every day. But like anything used frequently, these tools – these muscles, joints and ligaments – get taken for granted. That’s when accidents happen.

In fact, more than a third of all industrial accidents, every year, are caused by handling loads. Just by pushing, pulling, or lifting. Most of these injuries are strains – to back, arms, hands, fingers – and sprains: to the wrist, the thumb, the ankle.
These accidents are often caused by lifting heavy things too often, or twisting round to stack things at the side, or pulling loads by the simple measure of bracing the back and giving a good heave.

Many of these accidents can be prevented. They should be prevented, in fact, because employers have the legal duty to: “So far as is reasonably practical, avoid the need for their employees to undertake any manual handling operation at work which involve a risk to their being injured”.
It is in the employers’ legal interests to make sure their employees are handling goods and loads safely.
It’s also in their economic interests. Millions of working hours are lost every year through injury, and personal injury cases and compensation packages can prove costly.
Employers could even boost productivity by training their employees to handle loads properly, or by providing materials handling equipment to aid them with the job. Lifting something by hand is hard work; fortunately today’s employer has solutions to lighten the load.


There are a few simple rules to remember when handling loads.

Keep it close to the body

The further away the load, the more stress on your lower back. Holding a load at arms length puts five times more weight on your back than holding it close to you. Keeping it close to your chest makes you more stable – and the friction of your clothes helps keep the weight where you want it.

Check your feet

Get close to the job: Stand square on to the load, with your leading leg as far forward as comfortable, preferably facing the direction you’re going to move in next.

Use your legs

If you have to bend down to pick something up, don’t stoop – bend the legs, and use your strong leg muscles to take the weight. It’s not a good idea to handle loads when sitting down – you can’t use your leg muscles, you can’t use your body weight as a counter balance, and you’re asking too much of your arms and upper body.

Pulling and pushing power

You have more power when pulling or pushing if your footing is secure – make sure the floor is dry and solid. Grip the load between waist and shoulder to ease strain on the back and the arms. Even better, turn your back to it and push with your legs: they have strong leg muscles for a reason.

Is it too big?

Make sure that the load is small enough to enable you to get a good grip, and see where you’re going. If any side of what you’re carrying – length, width or height – is more than 75cm then you run a greater chance of injuring yourself. Make sure you know where the centre of gravity is; keep the heaviest side nearest to your body.

Not too far

If you can lift a load and carry it easily against your body, you’ll also be able to carry it safely. Don’t carry it too far, however: more than 10m and you’ll probably be using all your energy in carrying the load, and have none left to put it down safely.

How much weight?

It is difficult to give precise guidelines about how much weight people should be carrying, because people vary so much. Weight is only one of the risk factors to manual handlers. A diagram on page 6 shows the guideline weights that men and women should be carrying safely.

Don’t twist

You could hurt your back. Lift, carry and place in one direction where possible. If you have to put a load in an exact possible, put it down first, and then adjust it, when the weight is off you.

Slave to the rhythm?

Don’t make the same movement too often – it can lead to repetitive strain injury. HSE guidelines allow for lifting or lowering a load once every two minutes. Any more than this, and the employer should be carrying out a detailed survey of the risks involved – see pages 10-13 for more details. Take a break now and then, or alternate one handling job with another, to give different muscle groups a rest.


Lifting and Lowering

Employers can reduce the risk of injury to their employees by providing materials handling equipment for moving loads. In fact, the Health and Safety Executive recommends that employees use machines and tools to take the strain. Investing in equipment, such as scissor lifts or moveable, powered workstations, will actually help employers meet their legal obligation to protect their workforce from injury, and to keep them safe and fit.
Rather than asking employees to lift and lower items, bending down and reaching up to do it, get a machine to bring the items to the right height.
For example, a scissor lift truck can be loaded with the goods, and then raised or lowered to the height needed to transfer the loads safely to the next stage. If the goods are extremely heavy, or have to be transported, a powered workstation can do the job efficiently.

Pulling and Pushing

The risk of injury may also be reduced if lifting can be replaced by controlled pushing or pulling. However, uncontrolled sliding or rolling, particularly of large or heavy loads, may introduce fresh risks of injury. Generally, people can exert more force towards and away from their bodies than sideways.
For both pulling and pushing, a secure footing should be ensured, and the hands applied to the load at a height between waist and shoulder wherever possible. For pushing and pulling operations the guideline figures assume the force is applied with the hands between knuckle and shoulder height.

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Manual Handling