How to minimize or prevent lifting injuries

Every year, more than a million employees in the U.S. suffer back injuries due to improper lifting. In fact, back-related injuries account for at least 20 percent of injuries in the workplace, and 25 percent of all workers’ compensation claims involve back injuries. What steps could you take to reduce on-the-job injuries from improper lifting? John has worked for your company for 11 years, and never injured himself. However, last month, after moving boxes, he experienced substantial pain. He insisted that he used the same lifting motion he’s always used, but this time he experienced an injury severe enough to miss three weeks of work. Sandra’s office job doesn’t typically involve physical exertion. Last week she received a shipment of notebook covers. While trying to move the box back to the storeroom, she injured her back. You hired Keith for his enthusiasm. He’s eager to tackle any task. This morning, his third day on the job, you observed him unloading boxes, not using proper lifting methods. Typically, employers use three methods to reduce on-the-job injuries from improper lifting:

  • Educating and training on workplace safety, including safe lifting
  • Careful selection, orientation and placement of workers
  • Designing the job to help reduce the risks

In this article, we’re going to focus on the third option, because it takes a holistic view of the job, including proper movement techniques and the equipment needed to perform the tasks safely. As you begin to review the various jobs at your company, focus on those that generate the highest number of employee complaints or claims. 


How you can reduce or eliminate lifting exposures for your workforce

Step one: Evaluate tasks to reduce on-the-job injuries

An analysis of the various tasks involved in the job is the starting point and needs to be completed by an in-person observation of your workers performing their daily tasks. You’ll need to bring along a small tape measure to help you measure distances. The information you collect can then be compared with the NIOSH Lifting Equation, a tool used by occupational health and safety professionals to assess the manual material handling risks associated with lifting and lowering tasks in the workplace. This equation considers job task variables to determine safe lifting practices and guidelines. In evaluating the tasks, you’ll need a clear picture of each of the movements involved and how often the task is repeated. You’re going to be logging:

  • A description of the task, such as “lifting boxes from a handcart to the floor”
  • Load – both an average and a maximum weight
  • Location of the hands at the beginning of the movement, both in relation to the floor and to the spine
  • Travel distance – the vertical distance the hands move throughout the move
  • Asymmetric angle – the degree to which the body must twist or turn during the lifting task
  • Coupling – an estimate of how secure the individual’s contact is with the object while it is being handled
  • Frequency – how often the task is repeated within a 15-minute period
  • Duration – the time spent on this task during the eight-hour shift

Related: Why it pays to report work comp claims promptly

Step two: How do we compare?

Use your data that you’ve recorded and enter it into the NIOSH worksheet to see how well or how poorly the task is being completed.

Step three: What do we need to change?

Now that you’ve performed the calculations on the form, you can create a plan for improvement. Based primarily on the lifting index and recommended weight limit (but including other factors on the worksheet), you can determine which are high risk indicators. What’s “high risk”? LI (Lifting Index) shows you how far away from the RWL (Recommended Weight Limit) the actual weight is. An LI of more than 1.0 introduces risk; the higher the LI, the fewer people will be able to perform this task without injury. Therefore you may want to consider task modifications of LIs above 1.0, particularly if they involve any significant amount of bending, twisting or reaching. Learn more at ErgonomicsPlus.

Related: Top 7 workers’ compensation claim mistakes and how to avoid them

Step four: Develop a plan

The most effective controls are those that modify the job to fit the worker better, to reduce on-the-job injuries. Administrative controls. You may need to introduce new procedures or training to maintain these physical changes, such as

  • Safety rules
  • Assignment of responsibility
  • Self-inspections
  • Personal involvement by top management
  • Safety training of employees, supervisors or managers

Man vs. machine. Whenever possible, first let a machine do the work. Ensure that workers using the machines or equipment are adequately trained; develop best practices to control any added exposures such as machine guarding, struck by objects, trips and falls. Your machines should be on regular inspection and preventative maintenance programs.

  • Overhead cranes and hoists
  • Fork trucks
  • Genie lifts
  • Two wheelers
  • Pallet jacks
  • Lift tables

Manual handling. Introduce better options for procedures that will continue to include manual lifting, such as

  • Eliminate the need to lift or lower:
    • Change the height of the worker
    • Change the height of the work area
  • Reduce the weight to an acceptable Lifting Index by reducing the:
    • Size
    • Container weight or capacity
    • Number of objects handled simultaneously
  • Reduce body motions during the task
    • Bending: keep materials at work level; lower the worker; raise the work level
    • Twisting: keep materials in front of worker; provide swivel seats; use mechanical devices to change material flow direction; allow enough space in work area to turn and step
    • Reaching: reduce the size of the object; place materials/tools/controls as close to the worker as possible; allow enough space to walk around or get closer to objects

Chances are your business includes a multitude of job descriptions, so focus your efforts to control risks on those that have the most frequent incidents of injury. By improving those, you can begin to reduce on-the-job injuries – particularly lifting injuries – within your workforce. This article originally appeared on Arrowhead’s Tribal blog. It is used with permission and has been updated and modified to better fit the needs of PGCS’ clients.