Manual materials handling
Learn how to prevent musculoskeletal disorders when lifting, carrying or moving objects in the workplace.
Manual materials handling, which includes the manual lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling or carrying of objects, is a common task in many workplaces and can lead to fatigue or injuries of the back, shoulders, neck, arms or other body parts.
Many injuries that happen from manually handling items are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that can result from:
- gradual and cumulative wear and tear on the body due to repetitive manual handling of materials
- a one-time exertion due to high forces (for example, lifting a heavy box) or awkward postures
Good ergonomic design of manual handling activities prevents these types of injuries.
The following outlines the legal requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Act regarding manual materials handling activities:
Keep equipment in good condition
Under clause 25(1)(b), employers must make sure the equipment, materials and protective devices they provide are maintained in good condition. Equipment that is in disrepair can increase the physical demands of workers.
Some examples of disrepair are:
- wheels on carts that are broken, misaligned, flat, have items caught in them or are tangled with debris. These can increase the push/pull forces required to move the cart
- bearings that are not properly maintained require more effort to move the equipment (for example, dumping cement from a cement mixer)
- hoists or mechanical lifts that are in disrepair lead to workers manually doing heavy lifting
Provide information, instruction and supervision
Under clause 25(2)(a), employers must provide workers with information, instruction and supervision to protect their health and safety.
Examples of information and instruction include:
- safe ways of using equipment
- how to recognize and report MSD hazards
- how to recognize the signs and symptoms of MSDs and the importance of early reporting
- manual materials handling techniques (for example, safe lifting, team lifting, site-specific lifting and safe pushing/pulling)
Under clause 25(2)(d), employers must make sure that workers or a person in authority over a worker (for example, supervisor or manager) are acquainted with the hazards in their work. This includes MSD hazards when manually handling objects.
Take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances
Under clause 25(2)(h), employers must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker, including from MSD hazards while manually handling objects.
See Preventing Injuries for examples of precautions.
Regulations that apply
Some sector-specific Occupational Health and Safety Act regulations may also apply to manual materials handling activities, including:
Under section 45 of Regulation 851 – Industrial Establishments, employers must make sure that materials, articles or things are:
- lifted, carried or moved in a way and with such precautions and safeguards that does not endanger the safety of a worker [clause 45(a)]
- transported, placed or stored so they can be removed or withdrawn without endangering the safety of any worker [subclause 45(b)(ii)]
- removed from a storage area, pile or rack in a manner that will not endanger the safety of a worker [clause 45(c)]
Health care and residential facilities
Under section 103 of O. Reg. 67/93 – Health Care and Residential Facilities, employers must make sure that materials, articles or things are:
- handled and stored in a manner that will not cause a hazard [subsection 103(1)]
- transported, placed or stored so they can be removed or withdrawn without endangering the safety of any worker [subsection 103(2)]
Under subsection 37(1) of O. Reg. 213/91 – Construction Projects, employers and constructors must make sure that material or equipment at a project is stored or moved in a manner that does not endanger a worker.
Hazard identification and risk assessments
Under clause 25(2)(h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers are required to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. This may include taking steps to identify, assess, and eliminate or control health and safety hazards in the workplace, including MSD hazards from manual materials handling activities.
If you or someone else has found MSD hazards, those hazards should either be eliminated or a risk assessment should be performed.
A risk assessment determines the level of risk by evaluating the likelihood of a task causing an injury and how severe that injury might be.
The risk assessment should be done by a competent person.
If the level of risk is too high, the employer must put controls in place to make sure materials can be safely handled.
Depending on the task, there are many risk assessment tools you can use that vary in complexity.
Risk assessments will look at the various factors that may increase or decrease the risk of injury. Possible factors that can affect the level of risk associated with manual handling include the following:
- size of the load
- weight of the object
- number of times lifting/lowering occurs
- if the load is handled with a quick or jerky motion
- if the worker twists their back while supporting the load
- if how the worker is holding the materials with their hands is not optimal (for example, with a flat palm or “pinch grip”)
- if the load is not being evenly distributed between the hands, or both hands are not used to support the load
- if the nature of the load (for example, cold, hot, dirty or sharp) does not allow it to be pulled close to the body
The location of the load can also be a factor, for example where:
- there is a barrier (for example, the edge of a bin), requiring a worker to bend over to reach the material, and preventing the worker from being able to bend at their knees
- head space restrictions force the worker to crouch
- obstructions block the way, making the worker reach to grasp or place the materials
- there is a load close to the ground where the worker must stoop or crouch to move it, resulting in their body weight having to be raised while they are lifting the load
- a load is placed above shoulder-height, which will place more stress on the smaller shoulder and upper back muscles
- a load is above head-height where the worker must stretch in order to reach it and does not have full control of it
- amount of force required to move the item
- number of times pushing/pulling occurs
- distance the item must be moved
- presence, location and orientation of handles
- pushing/pulling with a quick or jerky motion, which increases forces placed on the worker
- pulling with the arm behind the body
- slippery floor surfaces
- weight of the load
- number of times carrying occurs
- distance the item must be carried
- condition of the surface travelled (rough surfaces or trip hazards can result in sudden unexpected movements due to a trip or stumble while carrying a load)
- physical size of the load carried (wide spread arms or awkward neck positions can impact how far a load can be carried as well as the potential for trips and falls)
Selecting appropriate controls (such as engineering or administrative procedures) to prevent MSDs will depend on the hazards present and the type of manual handling taking place. Emphasis should be placed on controls that eliminate or reduce the hazards.
Some controls include the following:
The most effective method of preventing MSDs due to manual materials handling is to remove the need to manually handle materials.
Some examples of eliminating this task include:
- redesigning the task
Examples of engineering controls for lifting and lowering tasks include:
- reducing the weight and/or size of the materials
- providing mechanical means to move the materials (for example, a lift assist)
- increasing the weight of the materials so they cannot be manually handled
- changing the location of materials to a more appropriate height by mechanical means (for example, a lift table will move the materials into a worker’s optimal lifting zone to reduce low-level or above-shoulder lifts)
- organizing storage areas so heavier items are handled within the worker’s optimal lifting zone
- keeping multiple sides of the load accessible to reduce having to reach to items at the back
- making sure the aisles are kept clear to minimize double handling and to provide adequate access to materials
Examples of engineering controls for pushing and pulling tasks include:
- providing a motorized cart or tugger system so carts or other bins with wheels do not have to be pushed or pulled
- making sure casters on carts and bins are the proper size and made of the appropriate materials for the weight handled and the type of surface
- positioning the handles on carts so workers can push the load using an optimal posture (for example, long handles placed vertically to accommodate varying push positions)
Examples of controls for carrying tasks include:
- providing a cart or dolly to eliminate the need to carry objects
- using conveyors to link workstations
- providing powered stair climbers (for example, stair climbing hand truck)
- using handling straps or handles where appropriate to improve handling heights and/or grip
Examples of administrative controls include:
- providing short breaks for recovery time
- adjusting work schedules, work pace or work practices (for example, spread out the time over which manual materials handling tasks must be performed in a day)
- having two or more people perform the work at the same time (for example, two-person or team lift, two people push a bin)
- implementing job rotation
- training workers in safe manual materials handling practices specific to the items being moved in the workplace
Please note that approaches such as job rotation and training are not effective controls when used alone.
Personal protective equipment
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is not an effective control for MSD hazards when manually handling items. However, some PPE may assist in performing manual handling.
Some examples include:
- gloves to improve the grip on the object
- footwear to improve friction or grip with the floor
- aprons or protective sleeves/jackets to allow materials to be held as close to the body as possible
Back belts are generally not considered to be PPE. Workers who wear back belts or employers who may wish to provide them should seek out information on the hazards and benefits of their use.
This resource does not replace the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations, and should not be used as or considered legal advice. Health and safety inspectors apply the law based on the facts in the workplace.