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What is Manual Handling?

Updated: May 6

work men carrying cardboard boxes

Manual Handling is the act of manipulating, transporting, and supporting materials and loads by hand, including actions such as lifting, pushing, pulling, and carrying by hand or through the use of bodily force.



Have you ever thrown out your back picking up a box of books? Felt a sharp pinch in your neck and shoulders while carrying a suitcase through the airport? Noticed a persistent ache in your wrists after rearranging the furniture? If this sounds familiar, you've learned the hard way how important proper manual handling techniques are.

Manual handling refers to any activity where you use physical effort to lift, lower, push, pull, carry, hold, or restrain an object or person. It's something we do without thinking all day long, whether at work, home, school, or play. But when done wrong or too much, manual handling can lead to serious injuries.

Understanding how to handle loads safely is crucial for protecting your health. Below are key points that will give you a comprehensive knowledge of the techniques, risks and legislation associated with Manual Handling:


In this Article:


Manual Handling Definition

Manual Handling is the act of manipulating, transporting, and supporting materials and loads by hand, including actions such as lifting, pushing, pulling, and carrying by hand or through the use of bodily force.

Manual handling includes a range of common activities such as:

  • Lifting, lowering, and lugging around boxes, bags, furniture, or other stuff

  • Pushing and pulling loaded carts, wheelbarrows, doors, and drawers

  • Helping support or restrain a person or a wriggly pet

  • Holding tools, sports gear, or other equipment during use

  • Reaching up high to grab something - think top shelf fails!

Basically, if it requires physical effort from your muscles, joints, and bones, it's manual handling. It's something we do without a second thought throughout our daily life, from before sunrise to after sunset.

Some everyday examples are:

  • Hauling groceries out of the car and into the house

  • Carrying a tired child on your hip from the car to bed

  • Pushing the vacuum back and forth over the carpet

  • Dragging boxes and furniture during a move

  • Helping lift a patient in and out of bed as a nurse

  • Transporting heavy trays and plates as a waiter

Manual handling happens in almost every setting imaginable - home, work, school, shops, you name it. Even employees based in an office environment do their share of lifting files or boxes and rearranging their workspace.

a construction worker carrying a pin kerb


Manual Handling Risks

Since we perform manual handling almost without any thought or consideration day after day, we take it for granted. But when done incorrectly, it can cause both acute and chronic injuries. These include:

  • Muscle strains and tears - Moving heavy boxes or other awkward loads can overstretch your muscles leading to partial or full tears. Your back, shoulder, and neck muscles are most at risk.

  • Herniated discs - Forcefully twisting while lifting can put too much pressure on your spine, eventually causing discs between the vertebrae to rupture. This results in severe back pain and pinched nerves.

  • Broken bones - Trying to lift or move something way beyond your strength can lead to fractures in the spine and extremities. Not the souvenir you want!

  • Chronic pain - Poor posture and repeating the same motions during manual handling causes inflammation. Over time this wears down the joints, resulting in constant aches.

  • Torn soft tissues - Pushing, pulling, or carrying things incorrectly strains tendons, ligaments, and cartilage in the arms, shoulders, and wrists. Ouch!

  • Crush injuries - Fingers, hands, and toes can get crushed if items fall or slip during carrying. Major bummer.

  • Sprains - Moving uneven loads in an unstable way can overstretch the ligaments in your wrists, knees, ankles, and other joints.

These injuries range from an inconvenience to debilitating long-term disability requiring surgery and rehabilitation. Some manual handling mishaps even cause permanent impairment. Not a pretty picture!

Work-related manual handling mishaps are rampant - in the UK, they account for 20% of all reported on-the-job injuries and time off.

This eye-opening stat shows why proper training is crucial, especially for those in higher-risk employment such as construction, healthcare, manufacturing, and warehousing.


The key to avoiding injury is using the correct manual handling technique tailored to each manual task. While everyone's size, shape, and capability differ, there are some universal safe lifting principles:

1. Size it up before lifting

Before blindly grabbing something, take a minute to assess:

  • Its weight, size, and shape

  • If it's balanced or might shift around

  • If you need help or equipment to get the job done

  • Your route - are there obstacles or tight squeezes to navigate?

This quick scan helps identify risks and plan the safest approach.

2. Get close

Get as close as you can to the load before lifting. Place your feet about hip width apart with one foot slightly forward. This wide stable stance keeps your balance and prevents strain on your back, arms and shoulders.

3. Lift with the legs

Your leg muscles are much stronger than your back muscles. So instead of bending at the waist, initiate the upward motion by bending your hips and knees. Keep your back in neutral alignment as you lift.

4. Avoid twisting

Twisting while lifting puts a large amount of rotational force on your spine since only half the muscles are working. Turn your feet instead to reposition the load. Take small steps or pivot to avoid twisting your waist as you go.

5. Carry loads close

Once you've lifted the item, bring it close to your body before moving. Holding loads away from your centre of mass strains your shoulders, arms and back. Tuck in those elbows and engage your core and legs when carrying loads.

Using these body mechanics helps distribute effort to your strongest and largest muscle groups instead of vulnerable structures like your back. A wide stance also provides a solid base to change direction and stop suddenly.


a risk assessment

Manual Handling Risk Assessment

Manual Handling operations require the completion of risk assessments to ensure the correct methodology is used for any specific task in the workplace. For heavy or bulky loads, using assistance or specialised tools takes the load off your body. Equipment like trolleys, wheelbarrows, pallet jacks, hoists, and conveyors mean you mainly steer the load rather than strain to lift it.

Bust out the gear for:

Heavy stuff: use a hand truck or dolly for anything over about 35 lbs/16 kg

Unwieldy loads: use straps, handles or grab a buddy

Repetitive lifts: let conveyors and lifts do the hard work

Long distances: wheel it - trolleys, carts, wheelbarrows

Tight spots: use hoists, jacks, ramps to navigate stairs and corners

Equipment prevents fatigue too, which is when your form fails. If it's available, use it.


a man carrying a roll of sheets

Long Term Injury Prevention

Injury prevention involves more than just safe manoeuvres; it also requires building physical capabilities through regular exercise. Your ability to lift safely depends on:

  • Cardio Fitness: Essential for delivering oxygen to working muscles.

  • Strong Legs and Core: These provide the power needed for lifting.

  • Flexibility: Enables smooth movement across a full range of motion.

Enhancing these physical attributes helps you manage manual work with less strain. Additionally, balanced strength around the joints aids in maintaining stability, especially when lifting in awkward positions.

However, physical fitness is just one part of the equation. An equally critical aspect is a workplace or organization that prioritizes safety and is attentive to employee concerns. Providing proper training and resources demonstrates a commitment to protecting worker health.

Key Measures for Injury Prevention Include:

  1. Training: Educate on safe techniques and the identification of risk factors.

  2. Task Rotation: Alternate tasks to prevent muscle fatigue.

  3. Warm-Ups: Engage in exercises to prepare joints for a range of movements before beginning lifting tasks.

  4. Rest Breaks: Implement regular, short breaks during repetitive tasks to prevent overexertion.

  5. Communication: Promptly address any unsafe tasks or discomfort to prevent potential injuries.

With thorough preparation and education, manual handling tasks can be safely performed over time. Neglecting potential risks and maintaining poor posture, however, will inevitably lead to chronic pain and injuries. Understanding your physical limits and employing smart lifting techniques are essential to staying active and avoiding harm to your body.


What are Some Helpful Exercises or Stretches for Manual Handling Preparation?

Engaging in beneficial warm-up exercises before undertaking manual tasks can significantly enhance joint mobility and muscle readiness, thereby reducing the risk of injury. Here are some recommended exercises and stretches:

  • Shoulder Rolls: Rotate your shoulders backwards and forwards to mobilize the joints. This simple movement can help alleviate tension and increase flexibility.

  • Arm Circles: Extend your arms out to the sides and perform both small and large circles. This exercise warms up the shoulders, improving their range of motion and flexibility.

  • Wrist Flexions: Gently bend your wrists up and down. This movement increases wrist flexibility, which is crucial for handling and lifting objects safely.

  • Spine Twists: Rotate your upper body to the left and right. This stretch loosens up the back muscles and spine, enhancing flexibility and reducing the risk of back strain.

  • Hip Circles: Rotate your hips in a circular motion. This exercise helps loosen up the lower back and hip areas, areas often susceptible to strain during manual handling.

  • Squats: A fundamental exercise for warming up the legs and improving overall lifting technique. Squats strengthen the leg and core muscles, providing a stable base for safe lifting.

  • Calf and Hamstring Stretches: These stretches improve flexibility through the back of the legs, crucial for maintaining proper lifting posture and preventing muscle strains.

Dedicating 5-10 minutes to move your joints through their full range of motion not only prepares the muscles and connective tissues for the demands of work but also significantly helps in preventing injuries.


How does Fatigue Impact Manual Handling Technique and Safety?

Fatigue significantly impairs both physical and cognitive abilities crucial for safe manual handling. On a physical level, tired muscles lose their strength and coordination, resulting in poor lifting techniques that can strain the back. Mentally, fatigue diminishes judgment and situational awareness, potentially leading to overlooked risks and hazardous shortcuts.

Consequently, fatigued workers are at a higher risk of injuries. Organizations can enhance safety by distributing intense manual tasks among workers, enforcing adequate rest breaks, and vigilantly monitoring for signs of fatigue.


Should Manual Handling Training be Task-Specific or Only Cover General Principles?

Effective manual handling training should encompass both the general principles of safety and the specific risks and techniques pertinent to the tasks at hand. Although universal safe lifting strategies, such as proper posture, are applicable in various settings, the most beneficial training replicates the conditions workers will actually face.

Hands-on training, continuous practice, and periodic retraining are essential for developing the skills and muscle memory required for safely handling loads on the job.


How does Discomfort Reporting Impact Injury Prevention in Manual Handling jobs?

Prompt reporting of symptoms such as muscle strain, joint discomfort, or tingling associated with manual handling tasks is essential for preventing more severe injuries. In environments where employees feel safe and encouraged to report pain or identify hazards, injury rates are substantially lower.

Cultivating a supportive, non-punitive culture of "see something, say something" ensures that potential issues are addressed swiftly, effectively mitigating the risk of injuries before they escalate.

Have you suffered from a Manual Handling Injury in the Past?

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Lifting Capability as we Age

As we age, we often focus on the obvious changes like reduced muscle mass and joint flexibility. However, there are less recognized impacts that affect our manual handling abilities:

  • Decreased fast-twitch muscle fibres: These are crucial for quick reactions and preventing slips or falls, making older individuals more prone to accidents.

  • Impaired proprioception: This refers to our body's ability to sense movement, action, and location, leading to challenges in maintaining balance and coordination during manual tasks.

  • Reduced vision and depth perception: Aging can affect our ability to gauge distances accurately and identify trip hazards, increasing the risk of accidents.

  • Compromised balance: Especially notable when lifting one-handed or manoeuvring sideways, which can lead to instability and falls.

While older workers are fully capable of lifting and handling loads safely, they may require more time to recover between tasks to prevent strain or injury.


How has Exoskeleton Technology Impacted Workplace Manual Handling?

Exoskeletons, which are wearable devices that support the user's limbs and torso, are revolutionizing workplace manual handling. They enhance strength, endurance, and balance, thereby minimizing strain and the risk of injury during manual tasks. Research indicates that exoskeletons significantly boost safety and productivity in material handling, enabling workers to lift heavier loads more efficiently and with less fatigue, which in turn helps prevent musculoskeletal injuries.

Despite the benefits, the adoption of exoskeleton technology faces challenges such as high costs, issues with fit and comfort, and a perceived decrease in productivity as workers adjust to the new technology. However, ongoing innovations are expected to overcome these hurdles, making exoskeletons more affordable, comfortable, and user-friendly.

a man lifting a box with an exo sekeleton


Postures to Avoid when doing Manual Handling Tasks.

To minimize the risk of injury during manual handling, certain postures should be avoided, including:

  • Twisting the torso, which can cause shearing forces on the spine.

  • Bending forward from the waist, leading to compressed discs and back strain.

  • Reaching overhead, which impinges shoulder joints and reduces stability.

  • Gripping with thumbs outward, straining tendons in the wrists and hands.

  • Extending arms forward, putting strain on shoulders and neck.

  • Squatting or kneeling, posing a high risk for slips and falls.

Maintaining a posture where the hips and knees are bent, keeping the back straight, and holding loads close to the body can help avoid these risky postures.


How has Pandemic Glove use Impacted Manual Dexterity and Handling Risks?

The increased use of gloves during the pandemic has introduced several challenges in manual handling, including:

  • Sweaty hands and skin irritation, exacerbated by constant glove use, making it hard to grip and control objects securely.

  • Reduced tactile feedback and dexterity, complicating precision tasks.

  • Increased grip force requirement, leading to muscle and tendon strain, particularly during repetitive tasks.

Selecting appropriate gloves and allowing for gloveless intervals, where safe, can mitigate these issues, improving manual handling safety and efficiency.


What Mistakes Lead to the Improper use of Manual Handling Equipment?

Improper use of manual handling equipment can arise from several common mistakes, including:

  • Overloading or exceeding the equipment's weight capacity.

  • Utilizing makeshift aids, such as chairs, in place of proper equipment.

  • Neglecting maintenance, resulting in worn wheels, brakes, or damaged parts.

  • Removing or bypassing safety guards and using the equipment unsafely.

  • Failing to secure loads properly, which could shift during transport.

  • Disabling worker presence controls or safety overrides.

  • A lack of comprehensive training on the correct operating procedures.

  • Ignoring safety warnings or risk assessments.

  • Placing body parts dangerously close to moving parts of the equipment.


Final Thoughts

Manual handling is a part of daily life, whether at work, home, or play. However, incorrect manual handling techniques can lead to serious, painful injuries over time. Understanding and applying safe lifting principles, along with the correct use of handling equipment, are crucial steps in preventing harm.

Additionally, fostering strength, endurance, and flexibility can significantly enhance your body's ability to manage manual tasks safely. With heightened awareness and a proactive approach to safety, you can maintain an active lifestyle and practice smart lifting throughout your life.

a link to a manual handling course




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