January 18, 2023

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Manual Handling: Using risk evaluation tools

NEBOSH Head of Product Development, Matt Powell-Howard, reminds us of the human cost of unsafe manual handling practices and calls for more use of simple risk evaluation tools.

The latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are sadly all too familiar. There were as many as 470,000 cases of workers suffering from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in Great Britain last year.

The financial cost of MSDs is staggering, put at around £2 billion annually in the UK alone by HSE. However, as we know all too well from recent events, headline figures often mask true human cost. Manual handling issues at work account for a significant proportion of MSDs and long-term health issues, which cause pain and suffering and often force people to fundamentally rethink their lives. I am a case in point!

Credit: Keagan Henman/Unsplash

A burden to carry

Like many who end up as health and safety practitioners, I began my working life in manual labour. Lifting and carrying were part of my everyday tasks and many of these practices were unsafe. This left me with lower back problems that still cause me difficulties to this day. I’ve had to sacrifice sporting activities that I love, and been forced down a path of often expensive private treatments, invasive surgery as well as the long-term use of strong opioid pain medication. And then there is the chronic pain, which unless you’ve suffered from this yourself is difficult to explain in terms of both its physical and mental debilitation.

At the same time, I have been lucky, my surgery was largely successful and I’ve since developed a career that is not entirely without its physical demands, but far less so than previously. And it’s a career that makes me feel I can support others in avoiding injury and harmful ill-health.

This brings me nicely to something I’ve had frequent discussions with HSE ergonomists about in recent months, as we’ve been developing a joint certificate qualification for manual handling risk assessment.

That’s a RAPP

As part of its MSDs toolkit, the HSE has developed two different manual handling assessment tools. These are the ‘MAC tool’ which helps assess the most common risk factors in lifting, lowering, carrying and team handling activities and the ‘RAPP tool’ which helps assess risks associated with pushing and pulling operations.

What I really like about these tools is that they allow you to identify higher-risk manual handling operations for which further action is necessary to reduce risk. They offer information to support the completion of a ‘score sheet’ showing risks associated with activities under review. Controls can then be identified and implemented to drive down or remove risk factors.

Now it’s important to make clear that there is no legal requirement to adopt these HSE tools and that there are other methods available to practitioners. However, they are freely available to download with guidance here.

How simple these tools are to use is probably best illustrated with the example opposite. I’ll choose the MAC tool and ask you to imagine a simple vertical lift.

Use of the Mac Tool in a simple, vertical lift

If you were observing such a lift, the MAC tool suggests you look at the position of the workers hands at both the start and the end of the lift. Depending on where they are in relation to the extremes of the floor and the head, produces a higher or lower numerical score and are colour coded according to a traffic light system.

The tool then combines this score with other aspects, such as grip on load, floor surface and load/weight frequency to produce an overall total, giving a red/amber/green ranking, which users are encouraged to place in the context of other factors.

Covering all bases

I feel it’s a real shame that the availability and usefulness of the MAC and RAPP tools are not fully known and adopted. They enable a quick and thorough evaluation of tasks that may otherwise be overlooked or assessed too subjectively. They remind us of the basics, while making sure all bases are covered.

So please, consider using MAC and RAPP. If someone had when I was younger, things might have been a whole lot different for me. But hey, I may not have been encouraging others to help people stay safe and healthy either. So, it’s not all bad, is it?

Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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