Manual handling regulations
A review of the law on manual handling
The Manual Handling Regulations may never make it onto the bestseller list, but they should be compulsory reading for all health and safety reps.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), more than a third of all musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that last more than three days are caused by someone handling an item at work wrongly.
Work-related MSDs affect one million people in the UK, and overall they are the most common form of ill-health disorders at work throughout Europe. Problems include back pain, work-related neck and upper limb disorders, including repetitive strain injuries, and lower limb disorders.
So it's little wonder that this year’s European Safety and Health At Work week (22 to 26 October) called “Lighten the Load” is dedicated to MSDs.
The aim of the campaign is to support employers, workers, safety representatives and other stakeholders in understanding their rights and obligations and, where possible, preventing MSDs.
Manual handling regulations
The 1992 regulations (amended in 2002) define manual handling as “any transporting, or supporting of a load (including lifting, putting down, pushing, pulling, carrying or moving thereof) by hand or by bodily force”.
The scope of the regulations makes clear that manual handling injuries can occur wherever people are at work, and not just in obvious risk areas such as hospitals, factories or on building sites. They can happen in banks, offices, shops and even at home.
Obligations of employers
The regulations require employers to:
• avoid the need for hazardous manual handling, as far as possible
• assess the risk of injury that cannot be eliminated
• reduce the risk of injury as far as possible.
Obligations of employees
Employees are required to:
• follow appropriate systems of work
• make proper use of equipment that their employer has provided
• co-operate with their employer with regard to health and safety
• inform their employer if they identify hazardous handling activities
• ensure they do not put others at risk.
But although employers are under a huge onus to try to find ways of avoiding injuries caused by manual handling, the law recognises that this may not always be possible. The regulations therefore require employers to assess the risk and take steps (such as providing training) to reduce the chances of injury to their employees.
So, for instance, employers must take account of:
• the physical suitability of the employee to carry out the operation
• the clothing, footwear or other personal effects they are wearing
• their knowledge and training
• the results of any risk assessments carried out under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (MHSWR)
• results of any health surveillance undertaken under the MHSWR
• whether the employee is one of a group of employees who are particularly at risk.
If the employer does all that, employees are unlikely to succeed in proving their claim even if they are injured, as the case of King -v- Sussex Ambulance NHS Trust shows. Mr King was injured when carrying an elderly patient down steep stairs in a carry chair. The Court of Appeal said that there was nothing else his employer could have done to prevent the risk, other than to ask a third party to intervene which, in this case, was not practical.
Breaches of the regulations
But the same cannot be said of all NHS employers. In Knott -v- Newham Health Care NHS Trust, the Court of Appeal said that Ms Knott’s injury was caused by repeated heavy lifting. Her employer had breached the regulations by, among other things, failing to provide a hoist or give her proper training. She was awarded over £400,000.
And in Wells -v- West Hertfordshire HA, the Court of Appeal found that Ms Wells’ employer had failed to carry out the most basic of requirements under the regulations – to do a risk assessment.
Alternative ways of doing the job
If the employer has done a risk assessment and identified a risk, they may then have to find another way of doing the job. Take the case of Mr Millward, a warehouse worker who injured his back lifting a 17kg roll of plastic pallet wrap from a pallet onto a machine on the shop floor. The employer’s defence was that they had done a risk assessment and provided adequate training.
At trial, Mr Millward proved to the Judge that his employer had not thought about whether there was a way to avoid lifting the rolls at all. The Judge accepted that the roll was heavy and that the employer had not mentioned this approach in their defence. He therefore found for Mr Millward.
Likewise, the case of the railway supervisor who had to lift two cylinders and a trolley weighing about 150 kg by hand from track level to the platform. When doing so, he strained his back.
His employer said that, as he was a supervisor, his responsibility was to make a dynamic assessment of the risk and choose a safe method of work. They said they could not always provide lifting equipment when working nights on this sort of job.
The supervisor argued that the need to lift could have been eliminated altogether by using a road / rail vehicle, and pointed out that his last manual handling training had been 10 years before. The Judge found that, if there were better methods of doing the task, it was for the employer to provide training in those methods.
Not all activities covered
It makes sense, however, that not all activities fall within the regulations. In a recent Scottish case – Hughes -v- Grampian Country Food Group Limited – the Court of Session held that a process worker trussing chicken carcasses was not performing a manual handling operation.
Having watched a video of the work process, which mainly consisted of employees working on carcasses on a work bench, or picking them up briefly to apply the trussing string before putting them back down, the Judge concluded that, while manipulation was being performed, there was no transporting or supporting of a load.
A Judge also found against an administrative assistant in the case of Curr -v- Crown Prosecution Service. As she walked along the road from her office to the local court, carrying bulky legal files, she slipped on a patch of ice and injured her knee. She said that the reason she fell was because the files were bulky and cumbersome and she found it difficult to balance them in the icy conditions. The Judge, however, said that it was an accident and that the bags had nothing to do with her fall.