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Preventing Workplace Injuries When Handling Heavy Materials

Constant pushing, pulling, bending and heavy lifting — it’s all just part of a day’s work, right?

Industry stats certainly make it seem so. Material-handling workplace injuries account for nearly two-thirds of the 3 million employee injury cases filed on average each year, with work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMD) landing near the top of that list. Of these WRMDS, more than half are associated with improper lifting performed day in and day out, leading to potentially life-long health consequences like lower back and neck pain, carpal tunnel, arthritis and more.

This sprain-and-strain mentality won’t cut it. Your employees are the heart of your operations, and workplace safety should reflect that. From material-handling safety tips, administrative injury prevention strategies, upgraded material-handling tools and much more, you can make sure your workforce won’t get rendered down to a stat — and your operations keep on rolling.

Common Material-Handling and Lifting Workplace Injuries

Workplace injuries affect all job and occupations. However, those involving physical exertion, chronic flexion positioning and repetitive manual tasks — exactly like what’s required with daily material handling in warehouses, construction, transportation and more — see workplace injury rates at higher and more consistent intervals than most others.

The majority of industry workplace injuries fall under the helm of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) — or, more colloquially, “repetitive motion injuries.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) classifies musculoskeletal disorders as those affecting the condition and abilities of muscles, joints, nerves, tendons, cartilage and spinal discs, most often resulting in impaired body movements. Throw “work-related” into the fold, and you have the following definition:

  1. Work activities and processes see daily tasks significantly contributing to one or more of these injuries
  2. These injuries are worsened or made chronic due to the continual work environment

Note that MSDs do not include workplace injuries related to trips, slips or falls. While these are equally serious safety concerns in a material-handling environment, they typically involve a different cause and subsequently different safety protocols to address and reduce them.

Repetitive Motion Injuries

The most common and frequently cited material-handling lifting injuries include:

  • Sprains, Strains and Tears: These injuries occur after damaging muscles, tendons and ligaments. Sprains, strains and tears are the most pervasive material-handling injury, with both direct and indirect costs for the worker and the workplace. In fact, the average MSD in this category causes employees to miss eight days of work, triggering expenses related to lost productivity, lost wages, downtimes and, in some cases, workers’ compensation.
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Carpal tunnel is caused when nerves in the wrist become pinch, most commonly because of overuse and overstrain. Carpal tunnel syndrome typically results in tingling, numbness or rigidity in your thumb and hand.
  • Tension Neck Syndrome: The collective term for routine aches and pains in the shoulders and neck. Causes can be everything from worn spinal joints to compressed nerves, most frequently where the lower neck and shoulders connect.
  • Tendonitis: Tendonitis is particularly in the rotator cuffs, knees, hips and elbows. Tissue connecting muscles and bones become inflamed due to wear, resulting in pain and irritation. In the most severe tendonitis cases, the tendons themselves begin to tear, causing inappropriate calcium deposits and further inflammation.
  • Epicondylitis: A form of inflammation that affects the elbows, epicondylitis signals inflammation is occurring in strained tendons. It is sometimes called “tennis arm” because of its tendency tends to strike those who undertake repetativegripping activities, like lifting and carrying heavy loads manually.
  • Trigger Finger: Trigger finger is a condition causing inflexibility, pain, stiffness and tenderness in the fingers. At its most severe, trigger finger will cause the affected hand to “lock up” when in use, leading to inflexibility and hand immobility.
  • Radial Nerve Problems: Radial nerve problems involve sensitivity and pain caused by repetitive pressure on the radial nerve, usually manifesting in the elbow, forearm, wrist or hand. The radial nerve plays a vital role in more than 12 muscle groups running throughout the arm and shoulder. Early symptoms typically begin with pain in the hands and wrists but can extend upward throughout these various muscle groups over time.

Why These Common Workplace Injuries Happen

To learn how to prevent workplace injuries from happening — or, at the very least, help educate and reduce their likelihood — workplaces must first understand common-sense causes.

Material-handling injuries and WRMSDs are nicknamed repetitive motion for a reason. At their simplest, what begins as muscle, nerve or joint “fatigue” becomes exacerbated by frequent and continual strain on the same physical area. This strain is nearly implicit in lifting and moving heavy loads, with the majority of plant and safety managers adopting what measures they can to keep employees from over-fatigue while still balancing workplace productivity and efficiency.

When physical fatigue occurs over an extended period, it leads to degeneration of the musculoskeletal system. The body’s natural recovery and regeneration processes just don’t have enough time to kick in and repair overstrained muscles and joints. WRMSDs are the unfortunate byproduct.

Yet, amidst all this, it’s important to remember that physical fatigue does not automatically translate into a WRMSD. For WRMSDs to develop, there are two risk factor categories material handling work must continually fall into. These two categories provide the basic understanding of injury acceleration — as well as the roadmap to safer lifting practices and a reduced likelihood of worker injuries.

1. Ergonomic and Environmental Risk Factors

Ergonomic and environmental factors are those controlled by the employer. From operational procedures and standard protocols to workplace design, these variables influence what a “typical day” looks like on the floor or in the field.

There are three principle ergonomic factors that, if left unaddressed, can lead to increased chances of employee fatigue in the workplace:

  • RepetitionA job or task is considered repetitive when its cycle takes less than 30 seconds to complete. It’s also classified as repetitive if it takes longer than 30 seconds, yet the employee completing the cycle spend 50 percent of their time performing the same motion to do so. Material-handling by its nature is repetitive, often at the heart of hitting hourly and daily production benchmarks.
  • Force: Forceful exertions are those categorized as requiring increased muscle efforts to complete. Again, routine lifting and material handling almost always fall into a force-exertion category if done manually, without the assistance of complementary lifting and hauling equipment.
  • Posture: Poor or awkward posture when completing lifting and moving cycles directly strain muscles and joints. It can go hand-in-hand with forceful exertions, pushing your body past its healthy mid-range motions.

2. Individual Risk Factors

Individual factors are those that fall on the employee’s case-by-case side — no employee is the same. Therefore, their task capabilities and tendencies will not be either, exposing workplaces to individually opted risks.

However, individual factors are exacerbated by the environmental risks listed above, creating a perfect storm that can lead to material-handling workplace injuries if ignored.

  • Fitness Level: Your employees don’t need to be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. However, they do need to pay attention to aches and pains that happen too early or too frequently, as well as things like shortness of breath from performing just one or two material-handling task cycles.
  • Health Habits: Getting adequate amounts of sleep, staying hydrating and maintaining a balanced nutrition are becoming more and more crucial in today’s manual work environments. What’s more, health hazards associated with smoking or obesity place workers not only at a higher risk for musculoskeletal disorders but other chronic conditions, as well.
  • Work Practices: Proper stretching before manual material-handling activities, sufficient breaks and rest periods, PPE to assist in safe task completions and complementary lifting equipment are all injury-prevention material handling work practices to adopt.

How to Prevent Workplace Injuries: Tips and Steps

Occupational health and safety is a joint effort. What’s more, solutions for safe material handling do not need to be strenuous, usher system downtimes or even stray from common sense.

From plant managers down to part-time operators, there are numerous strategies everyone can adopt to keep heavy lifting in the workplace safe, secure and still streamlined.

A few material-handling safety tips include to:

  • Employ Handling Aid-First Tools and Systems: Minimize the amount of manual material handling that needs to be done in the first place. Such equipment and products will cut down, if not eliminate, employees repetitively lifting and moving loads all on their own. From chutes, slides and fixtures to roll-over devices, jigs and complete lifting systems, today’s handling technology enhances — not replaces — the skills of your workforce. Always ask yourself if something can be lifted using an aid first and foremost.
  • Use Proper Body and Lifting Techniques, Always: Keep the back upright and posture vertical for safe roll lifting and load maneuvering. Avoid stooping over, bending and twisting while carrying heavy loads, as well as any reaching that requires floor level or overhead heights. Minimize any load carrying distances through preemptive route planning, and keep the final lift or load transfer between mid-thigh and shoulder heights for the least forceful exertions.
  • Keep It Clean: Loading areas should be obstruction free, as should transport routes and all roll-associated workstations.
  • Stage Operations: Both individual tasks and workstations should come with standard procedures employees are thoroughly trained on. These standard procedures incorporate a set way to handle heavy rolls and loads safely, with minimal physical exertion on your employees’ parts. They also proactively outfit workstations, ensuring the right lifting tools, materials and protective gear are ready and on-hand as needed.

A few material-handling safety protocol ideas include:

  • Task Rotations: WMSD risk factors like repetition and force can be directly mitigated by requiring workers to switch, or rotate, tasks during their shifts. These tasks must be varied in nature, using different muscle groups and incorporating different motions, ideally with the primary assistance of adjustable equipment and workstations.
  • Task Enrichment: Similar to task rotation, task enrichment finds new and diverse ways to complete a task, so one part of the body does not experience strenuous overload. It breaks up the prescribed monotony of material-handling operations and in some cases can even give workers more task autonomy.
  • Task Distribution Schedules: Employees and managers can draft schedules to more strategically allocate work, ensuring heavy lifts and manually laborious work are not allocated every shift to the same individuals.
  • Adjustable Workstations: Ergonomic workplace design ensures all spaces come configured for employee health and safety. Consider adjustable lift workstations where employees perform tasks in a variety of standing, sitting or standing-sitting positions, varying their rates of physical strain and repetitive exertion.
  • Institutionalized Stretching and Breaks: Workers must be allowed healthy intervals of rest and breaks between material handling operations. What’s more, material handling stretches or exercises should be adopted as a daily practice across the organization. These stretching routines are meant to target key muscle groups, increase flexibility and help encourage employees to remain mindful of their bodies and physical abilities — all to decrease workplace lifting injury rates.

Benefits of Injury Prevention Methods in Material Handling

Material handling tips and tools only go so far. If an organization doesn’t have a “why” fueling each and every safety decision, then its efforts come up empty.

These “why’s” help implement cross-organization buy-in for safer and improved material-handling procedures. They help all personnel understand the importance of a process or equipment change, as well as how they personally contribute to the safest possible material-handling environment for both themselves and others.

These three benefits — and more — are part of the reason to reinvest in injury prevention material handling solutions today.

1. Keep Workers Safe

There’s a reason this lands at the top of the list. Every individual who steps onto a work floor or operates a station becomes your responsibility. Their physical safety and well-being are paramount, with administrative, environmental and operational controls tailored to prioritize their health and wellness. Anything short of this not only risks your operations — it risks your reputation.

2. Reduce Costs

There are direct and indirect costs associated with material handling workplace injuries. Just consider:

  • Worker Costs: Loss of income due to days off, restricted physical hobbies, medical and pharmaceutical expenses, as well as the mental and emotional costs of managing chronic pain
  • Employer Costs: Workers’ compensation premiums, losses due to hits in productivity and system downtimes, losses due to higher employee turnover and absenteeism and re-training expenses
  • Larger Societal Costs: Social-security backed disability payments and medical expenses for uninsured but injured workers

In fact, when these cost estimates are combined, the average economic toll of WRMSDs averages $45 to 54 billion a year, according to research from the Institute of Medicine. Learning how to prevent workplace injuries and implementing ergonomic and administrative controls are the critical steps to mitigating such costly risks.

3. Remain Compliant

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a branch dedicated to material handling. They not only oversee regulatory rules and guidelines for industries with heavy lifting operations, but they review and update these rules almost annually.

Organizations must remain diligent in their material handling compliance efforts, procedures and precautions. Everything from proper workstation PPE to documented worker-health programs aids in buffering OSHA compliance.

Tilt Lock Equipment for Safe Roll Lifting, Tilting, Handling and More

Prioritizing worker safety doesn’t mean sacrificing workplace efficiency. With Tilt-Lock, you don’t have to.

Our catalog of material-handling lifting products provides effective solutions for nearly any safe roll lifting application. We’ve been doing it for more than 50 years, with secure yet simple lifting technology to bridge your personnel with next-level productivity.

Find your local Tilt Lock rep or reach out online to begin implementing safer roll-handling and lifting tools today.

Date Published: October 24, 2018