Monthly Program: Manual Materials Handling – Bend Without Breaking

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: April 1st, 2015
Topics: Ergonomics | Materials Handling & Storage |

Improper manual materials handling drives more injuries than most hazards combined.

Lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying heavy objects remains a fundamental job task of workers in just about all industries and work settings.

Lifting and back injury

There’s no gold medal for heavyweight box lifting!



Workplaces have changed dramatically over the millennia. But even in the 21st century,  lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying heavy objects remains a fundamental job task in just about all industries and work settings.

Performing these tasks – typically referred to as “manual materials handling” – puts workers at risk of musculoskeletal disorders (aka, “MSDs”), or serious and painful injuries to the back, limbs, joints and muscles. This Program sets out a strategy you can implement over a 30-day period to prevent MSDs along with the insurance, OSHA, productivity, and other liabilities that can result. Before implementing this program, take time to review this compliance briefing covering OSHA’s rules for preventing MSDs.  Anyone else helping you implement this program should review it as well.


Step One: Hazard Assessment (Day 1-5)

The first step in controlling MSD hazards is to conduct a hazard assessment. While workers may get MSDs from job tasks that don’t involve handling heavy objects – like sitting at a poorly designed office workstation over a prolonged period – for purposes of this Program, the hazard assessment required should focus only on manual materials handling operations and the job tasks putting workers at risk of MSDs during these operations. Hazard assessment methods should include:

  • Directly observing workers as they perform manual materials handling operations
  • Interviewing workers and supervisors who do these jobs
  • Reviewing OSHA 300 Logs, workers’ comp claims, first aid records and other materials that may reveal MSD injury patterns or trends.

Use the following tools to identify hazards, review data, and survey workers:

Manual materials handling and ergonomics are closely related, so ergonomics-related hazards should be included in your assessment. The following site-specific ergonomic assessments can help:

As you identify hazards, consider the risk factors that determine whether a particular manual materials operation poses an MSD risk, including:

  • How heavy the object being lifted, carried or moved is
  • The object’s size, shape, texture and other characteristics affecting how it’s handled
  • The horizontal distance between the worker and the object at both the start and end of the lift
  • How high the worker has to lift the object at both the start and end of the lift
  • How far the object has to be moved
  • The kind of terrain the worker must travel to move the object
  • Whether the lift requires the worker to twist, bend, reach and/or assume an unnatural and uncomfortable posture
  • How many times per hour and/or per day the worker must carry out such lifts
  • The physical environment, e.g., temperature and climate conditions
  • The health, age, stamina and skill of the worker performing the lift

Once you’ve identified all hazards, evaluate the seriousness of each so you can make intelligent, economically viable and legally sound decisions about the measures necessary to control them. Your evaluation should rank hazards by:

  • Severity, including, intensity, duration and frequency of exposure
  • Correctability, including the complexity of the hazard’s cause(s), whether technology or other solutions are available to control it, how much they cost, and how feasible they are to implement at your workplace

The following tools can be used to evaluate and rank the hazards you’ve identified:


Step Two:  Choose & Implement Safety Controls   (Day 6-10)

Now that you’ve identified all manual materials handling hazards, you must implement appropriate controls to manage the risks identified. Apply controls according to the following procedure:


If reasonably practicable, totally eliminate the hazard. For example, do not perform the manual materials handling operations that expose workers to MSD hazards.

Implement Engineering Controls

If elimination isn’t reasonably practicable, take measures to control the hazards.  Start with engineering controls. OSHA expects employers to determine if mechanical devices such as forklifts, dollies, conveyors, and hand trucks can be used to move materials. Making workers handle materials by hand rather than using feasible mechanical devices can lead not only to MSDs but OSHA citations or concerns from your insurer. Simpler forms of engineering controls to consider include:

  • Dividing materials into smaller, lighter loads
  • Placing materials into smaller, more numerous containers
  • Reducing the physical distance — both horizontal and vertical – that materials must be moved

Implement Work/Administrative Controls

The next layer of hazard control is use of “work” or “administrative” controls. These affect how the work is actually carried out. Start by developing and implementing safe work procedures for lifting and carrying heavy objects. Other work controls may include:

  • Using teams of workers to lift heavy objects (or patients in healthcare settings)
  • Rotating workers in and out of high-risk tasks to prevent repetition and continuous exposure
  • Giving workers regular rest breaks to recover
  • Alternating heavy with light tasks

Use these tools to create an MSD prevention policy and develop a lift team for heavy objects:

Use PPE & Other Protective Equipment

Last but not least, make sure workers who handle materials by hand have – and use – appropriate PPE and safety equipment for preventing MSD hazards, which may include:

  • Gloves making it easier for workers to grip and protecting hands from vibration, impact or cold
  • Slip-resistant footwear
  • Anti-fatigue mats to reduce musculoskeletal strain and fatigue from walking on hard surfaces
  • Footwear with anti-fatigue insoles, which is especially useful for working on hard surfaces that can’t be covered with mats
  • Knee and elbow pads to minimize the stress and fatigue from contact with hard or sharp surfaces
  • Wrist splints and braces to limit arm and wrist movements that can cause or aggravate an injury

Note that back belts have not proven effective in protecting workers against MSD hazards.

Implementation Tip: Although listed in order of recommended implementation, recognize that engineering, work and PPE controls are not mutually exclusive.  In the real world, they often can and should be used in combination.


Step Three: Training   (Day 11-20)

The next step is to train workers involved in manual materials handling operations so they understand MSD hazards they face and how to manage the risks. At a minimum, safety training should explain to workers:

  • What MSDs are
  • What causes MSDs and how workers can get MSDs by lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling and moving heavy objects by hand
  • The measures in place to ensure workers don’t get MSDs (or other injuries) while performing manual materials handling operations, including lifting equipment, safe work procedures and required PPE
  • The symptoms and signs of an MSD and what workers should do if they experience them
  • The procedures for reporting hazards

Recall the lessons from Safety Training 101 if delivering any training meeting:

  • Prepare: Review material, create an outline, choose a couple ways to interact with your attendees, and practice
  • Greet your employees by name
  • Communicate with enthusiasm

These things may seem minor, but done right, they’re proven to make training more effective.

You can deliver effective and legally compliant training using SafetySmart’s training kits & courses:

  • If your program uses online training to educate workers consistently across multiple sites, assign the following fall protection compliance courses:


You can use SafetySmart’s streaming videos either during onsite training meetings or as part of an online training program.  SafetySmart’s online training library includes over 90 streaming videos, any of which can be viewed or assigned; in addition, you can select additional titles from SafetySmart’s full library of over 600 titles to meet specific needs.

Also remember that simply providing training isn’t enough! You must ensure workers actually understand and are capable of applying their training on the job – that they are competent. Methods of verifying competency include:

  • Quizzing workers on the lesson after you deliver it
  • Making workers demonstrate the safe lifting techniques covered during the training
  • Observing workers perform manual materials handling operations to ensure they’re actually following their training on the job

eLearning courses can be useful to ensure competency, especially if you have workers spread across multiple sites or working remote, since competency is tested throughout an eLearning course.  You can also use SafetySmart’s Hazard & Incident Manager across your organization to record observations of workers performing tasks and identify gaps to address with reinforcement training.

These quick tools can also be useful for onsite training:

Finally, if your organization faces any unique manual materials handling issues, you can tailor any of the material included in onsite meeting kits. Likewise, SafetySmart can work with you if tailoring is needed for any online training courses or streaming videos.


Step Four: Monitor, Reinforce, & Improve  (Day 21-30)

The final step of any Program is to monitor your controls to ensure they’re effective and determine whether adjustments or corrective actions are necessary. Monitoring must be carried out on an ongoing and continuous basis. Even though it’s scheduled for Day 21-30, the monitoring process should never end!

Monitoring should be carried out on a regular basis, e.g., as part of monthly work inspections and scheduled safety audits, and in response to indications that current measures may not be adequate. Such red flags would include:

  • MSD symptoms or hazards reported by workers, supervisors or contractors doing manual materials handling jobs
  • Safety incidents involving such operations
  • Significant changes to manual materials handling operations, personnel, work environment, equipment, etc. that aren’t accounted for or anticipated in the existing hazard assessment.

You should also keep careful records documenting measures taken to assess and correct safety controls so you can prove you complied with OSHA requirements. The following tools make it easier to keep useful records:


You can also use SafetySmart’s Hazard & Incident Manager to thoroughly record and analyze observations, close calls, or recordable injury data.

Finally, solicit input on your entire program and act on it. Include employees and other members of your safety team.  These evaluation templates can help:

Final Word…

MSDs have become the leading source of lost work-time injuries, accounting for more than 1 in 3 of such injuries in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Failing to protect workers from MSD risks can also get you into hot water with OSHA, especially if your workers perform manual materials handling operations. The good news: following the Program here will go a long way to prevent MSDs and unplanned liabilities!


This monthly program is Part 2 of 12 in SafetySmart’s Facilities Management Success Series.  Each series is designed to help you deliver successful compliance and training programs month after month, ensuring you get the most from your investment in safety and SafetySmart. 
SafetySmart Success Series

Need more help?  Call us anytime at 800-667-9300 or email your account manager to discuss how SafetySmart can be used to improve your manual materials handling program.