Ergonomic Approach for Manual Material Handling

Topics: Loss Control

Summary: Manual material handling jobs can be very tedious. Those workers who do not follow proper job task procedures are at risk for strain injuries. By implementing ergonomic practices, learn to protect manual material handling workers from back strains and other workplace injuries.

Ergonomic Approach for Manual Material Handling

Although technology has advanced industrial production techniques, manual handling of materials has remained essentially the same. Most jobs require some handling, but about 10% require extensive manual materials handling.

Tightly linked to the manual handling of materials is the possibility of back injuries and musculoskeletal disorders. The number of workers’ compensation claims for back injuries throughout the country remains high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 128,000 back injuries required days away from work in the U.S. in just 2020. Workers’ compensation back injury claim costs can be quite expensive, with lower back injuries costing nearly $38,000 in medical and indemnity and upper back injuries costing over $36,000.

To help alleviate the risk of back injuries, companies have started incorporating lifting training programs and advanced ergonomics techniques at their worksites. The specific procedures can evaluate and improve existing manual material handling tasks. Ergonomic risk factors, such as awkward postures and repetitive motions, can be evaluated, and existing manual material handling tasks can be corrected.

Understanding Workplace Back Injuries

Back pain has many causes, and pinpointing the factors responsible is often difficult and costly. Almost all industrial back injuries are referred to as “back strains,” defined as overexertion or stretching of the muscles. One emerging theory states that most industrial back pain results from cumulative strains to the discs caused by repeated, stressful work, such as manual material handling.

Workers’ compensation recognizes that these cumulative back injuries are caused by weeks, months, or years of ergonomic stressors, such as lifting in an awkward posture or a repetitive lifting job assignment. The underlying factors responsible for these strains take on much greater importance than trying to fix the one-shot incidents, and finding those factors needs to become a primary goal to reduce back injuries.

Analyze Material Handing Processes and Operations

Typically when back pain is reported, an investigation focuses on the immediate incident responsible for the back injury. However, consideration must be given to any ergonomic risk that may have led to muscle fatigue, leaving muscles more susceptible to injury. Using a systematic method of reviewing jobs to reduce material handling injuries usually pays dividends through increased productivity and reduced operating costs.

Analyzing the current job tasks, methods, and safety procedures is critical to help prevent workplace injuries. Understanding the relationship between the workers, the workstations, and the jobs assists the individual responsible for designing workstations. These individuals must pay particular attention to the details of the tasks to ensure the greatest possible harmony between the work and the worker.

Material Handling Safety Methods

It is usually not enough to simply observe and study a specific manual material handling operation. Eliminate unnecessary material handling by combining operations or shortening the distances that material must be moved. Simplify processes so similar materials handled differently can be worked similarly, improving material flow. It is critical to listen to suggestions made by employees to simplify processes.

Analyze the material handling job tasks with an ergonomic eye, including the following:
  • Fit the task to the worker
  • Recognize manual material handling includes lowering, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying and transferring activities
  • Measure the frequency and duration of the work task
  • Consider the weight of containers repeatedly handled and transferred versus the parts inside.
  • Minimize the potential for injury by protecting the employee from loads with sharp edges or projections

Implement Worker Safety Tips

Employers who have workers who handle different materials in their daily jobs should consider the following safety procedures:
  • Rotate employees to keep individuals from continuously working strenuous jobs
  • Split work among two or more employees
  • Institute appropriate work/rest schedules
  • Consider the use of mechanical aids whenever possible to assist employees in their material handling needs and train workers on how to work with them
  • Allow the worker to recognize material handling problems in the workplace
  • Teach the worker how to identify procedures preventing excessive manual material handling

Material Handling Ergonomic and Safety Tips

Establish a company policy to review the material handling safety programs as part of the planning procedure for any proposed process. This review should also be ongoing since new material handling equipment comes on the market continuously, and “state of the art,” including exoskeletons in ergonomic equipment, is changing rapidly.

Workspaces should be clean and clutter-free. Poor housekeeping only increases material handling obstacles. Repair damaged flooring and surfaces to prevent overexertion. Carts used for moving materials should be in good repair.

Employers should implement and enforce ergonomic practices for their workers who handle materials, including:
  • Prevent repeated stooping and bending by bringing both incoming and outgoing materials at each process to a suitable work height, at least 20 inches from the floor
  • Reduce the need to raise or lower materials from above shoulder height
  • Allow enough space for feet to get under tables and conveyor belts
  • Provide clear access to shelves and adequate space to go around pallets
  • Provide adjustable chairs for all operations, which offer maximum adjustability and arrange for support for any lifting that will be done from that workstation
  • Try to incorporate concepts that fit the job to the worker
  • Build equipment around material handling requirements
  • Review work areas for proper illumination levels to help prevent accidents or injuries
  • Issue appropriate clothing, such as gloves
  • Evaluate noise levels to ensure that mechanical handling warning signals can be heard

AmTrust Loss Control Team Helps Small Businesses

AmTrust’s Loss Control Department understands the importance of helping small businesses identify hazards by assessing the workplace conditions, practices and processes to help reduce the risk of accidents, injuries and illnesses. Our goal is to provide valuable safety training resources and ergonomic assessments and recommendations to create the most effective loss control program for the specific needs of our insureds. For more information, please contact us today.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is appropriate or suitable for any specific business or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business and/or legal advisors. Coverages may vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

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