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February 22, 2022

Manual material handling

Mark Wandersee

Material handling and lifting incorrectly can result in a variety of injuries, most commonly back strain. The CDC states, “Manual material handling work contributes to more than half a million cases of musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders reported annually. MSK disorders often involve strains and sprains to the lower back, shoulders, and upper limbs. They can result in protracted pain, disability, medical treatment, and financial stress for those afflicted with them, and employers.”

With a simple google search you will find hundreds of articles online for proper lifting techniques (including some of our own), which can be helpful as you evaluate how to apply and put into practice in your daily lives. 

This blog summarizes the information presented in this multi-agency online tool that demonstrates the scientific evidence proving that ergonomic interventions can lower the physical demands of MMH work tasks, thereby lowering the incidence and severity of the MSK injuries they can cause. The potential for reducing injury related costs make ergonomic interventions a useful tool for improving a company’s productivity, product quality, and overall business competitiveness. The tool has over 60-pages of very helpful information. I strongly suggest digging into the tool more deeply after reviewing this blog to strengthen your program. This booklet aids in recognizing high-risk MMH work tasks and can offer effective options for reducing their physical demands.

What to Look For

Manual material handling tasks may expose workers to physical risk factors. If these tasks are performed repeatedly or over long periods, they can lead to fatigue and injury - Look for:

  • Awkward postures (e.g., bending, twisting)
  • Repetitive motions (e.g., frequent reaching, lifting, carrying)
  • Forceful exertions (e.g., carrying or lifting heavy loads
  • Pressure points (e.g., grasping loads, leaning against parts or surfaces that are  hard)
  • Static postures (e.g., maintaining fixed positions for a long time)

Repeated or continual exposure to one or more of these factors initially may lead to fatigue and discomfort. Over time, injury to the back, shoulders, hands, wrists, or other parts of the body may occur.

Engineering Improvements

These include rearranging, modifying, redesigning, providing or replacing tools,

equipment, workstations, packaging, parts, processes, products, or materials

Administrative Improvements

Observe how different workers perform the same tasks to get ideas for improving work practices or organizing the work. Then consider the following improvements:

  • Alternate heavy tasks with light tasks.
  • Provide variety in jobs to eliminate or reduce repetition.
  • Adjust work schedules, work pace, or work practices.
  • Provide recovery time (e.g., short rest breaks).
  • Modify work practices so that workers perform work within their power zone (i.e., above the knees, below the shoulders, and close to the body).


Workers need training and hands-on practice with lifting, new tools, equipment, or work practices to make sure they have the skills necessary to work safely.

  • Use several types of visual aids (e.g., pictures, charts, videos) of actual tasks in your workplace.
  • Hold small-group discussions and problem-solving sessions.
  • Give workers ample opportunities for questions.

Studies show that varying your methods and materials will improve retention and recall of information, and enhance learning experience. The "learning pyramid", developed by the National Training Laboratory, suggests that most individuals only remember about 10% of what they read from textbooks, but retain nearly 75% of what they learn through actual practice or hands on work. The Learning Pyramid model suggests that some methods of learning are more effective than others and that varying study methods will lead to deeper learning and longer-term retention.

Be prepared to make improvements

The goal of making changes is to improve the fit between the demands of work tasks and the capabilities of your workers.

  • Talk to various employees - Brainstorming with engineers, maintenance personnel, managers, and production workers is a great way to generate ideas.
  • Contact others in your industry. They may have solutions that could also apply to your problem.
  • Look through equipment catalogs. Focus on equipment dealing with the types of problems you are trying to solve.
  • Talk to equipment vendors. They may be able to share ideas from operations similar to yours.

References and Resources