When do we need to do manual handling training?

Manual handling training has been considered an integral part of good risk management for decades, however, for more than 10 years now, we have known that technique training alone is an ineffective risk control. This may surprise some people, particularly those who go to the gym or have a personal trainer.

Any instructor worth their salt will ensure that gym-goers perform their lifts with a semi-squat technique. If you watch Olympic power lifters you will certainly see athletes demonstrating the preferred semi-squat lift technique. So why then is manual handling training considered ineffective and out of favour?

In 1985, 4000 US postal workers participated in a randomised controlled trial in which they were given safe lifting training and followed for 5 years (1). The research found that although workers’ knowledge of safe lifting practices was improved by the training, it did not change their work practices. The study concluded that the training program did not reduce the rate of lower back injury, there was no significant different in the median cost per injury and there was no difference in the rate of musculoskeletal disorders.

Why is this so? In focussing on lifting technique, we are addressing only one risk factor – posture. We know that musculoskeletal disorders are caused by a range of risk factors including exposure to:

  • Repeated or sustained exertion of force,
  • High or sudden force,
  • Repeated or sustained awkward postures,
  • Repetitive movement and
  • Whole-body or hand-arm vibration.

Imagine you’re moving house. You’ve got the kitchen all boxed up and ready to go. If we focus on lifting technique alone, we neglect critical risk controls including getting a trolley or other mechanical aid, sharing the job with friends and family and using small boxes to keep the weight down. It’s obvious that a focus on lifting technique alone would be less effective at managing this risk.

[1] Daltroy L, Iversen M, Larson M, Lew R, Wright E, Ryan, J, Zwerling C, Fossel A, Liang M (1997). A controlled trial of an educational program to prevent low back injuries. The New England Journal of Medicine 337(5): 322—328.

Workers lifting heavy machinery

So how can employers fulfil their duty of care and ensure that manual tasks are performed safely? Do employers still need to offer manual handling training? OH&S in Australia is based on a model of self-regulation which means there is no prescription for manual handling risk management. So what do employers need to do?


1. Identify, assess and control hazards

Employers must identify hazardous manual tasks in their workplace, assess the risks and implement practicable risk controls, all in consultation with employees. These principles are the same as for managing any other hazard, however the risk assessment process is different. If you use a likelihood-consequence matrix to assess manual handling tasks, every result will be the same – a medium level risk. The task will either yield a likely, mild consequence, or it will yield an unlikely, severe consequence. So you can see that a more sensitive risk assessment method is needed.

Back on Track offers Manual Tasks Auditing which ensures that employers meet their obligations. After completing the risk identification and risk assessments, our consultants work with employers and workers to develop sensible, cost-effective risk controls.

To ensure that a system for risk management is maintained following manual task auditing, Back on Track offers Manual Tasks Risk Assessment (ManTRA) Training. This course teaches stakeholders such as line managers and safety advisors in manual tasks risk assessment.


2. Teach workers how to identify manual task hazards

Workers should be trained in how to identify hazardous manual tasks and this is frequently referred to a PErforM training, an acronym for Participative Ergonomics for Manual Tasks.


3. Manual handling training if needed

Manual handling training is sometimes still needed but not in the way you may think. While using the preferred semi-squat lift technique is ideal, there are more important features of training that relate directly to the task. For example, consider the moving house scenario: Our safe work method statement might state that all boxes be stored at bench height, that box weights shall not exceed 15kg, and that a mechanical aid plus three people are required for moving refrigerators. Training would involve practice of the task using the safe work method statement, and training would need only occur when work methods are changed or at induction. This is a simple example that demonstrates the use of task-specific training. Typically, Back on Track consultants help employers to develop safe work methods and training is delivered by in-house experts.

This process can seem onerous at the outset, but with guidance from Back on Track’s experts, a self-sustaining system can be successfully implemented, fulfilling the employers duty of care and making tasks safer for workers.

Take our online test to see if your business is meeting its legislative obligations for manual tasks risk management. 

1. Daltroy L, Iversen M, Larson M, Lew R, Wright E, Ryan, J, Zwerling C, Fossel A, Liang M (1997). A controlled trial of an educational program to prevent low back injuries. The New England Journal of Medicine 337(5): 322—328.