Manual Handling Assessment

General Safety By Matthew Coombes

To manage any risk effectively, first we need to assess the risk. Manual handling is no exception to this rule.
Unfortunately, with manual handling, many companies have a misconception that if they provide basic manual handling awareness training, this is sufficient to effectively manage the risk.

However, this is not the case.

Not only can employees still get injured if they have received manual handling training, but only providing basic training and not assessing risks may lead the Health and Safety Executive (and potentially civil courts) to judge that those risks are being insufficiently managed.

This could lead to unfavourable and costly legal actions being taken against your organisation.

So how can we assess manual handling properly?

To assess manual handling risk, you need to focus on the manual handling tasks being undertaken.

How heavy is the load?

There are no set or specific weight limits in the Manual Handling Regulations, and guidelines on safe limits are not unquestionable. The suggested weight limit for men to carry at elbow height is 20kg. This suggested weight may be suitable for some men, and unsuitable for others. When assessing load weight in any manual handling task, the physical capabilities of an individual carrying out the task is more important than the weight of the load.

Type of load

The type of load that is going to be lifted is key to the assessment of manual handling risk.


Load Risk Reason Example
Sheep High – Medium Animals are unpredictable and the load can move, shifting its weight without notice Agriculture
Human High – Medium Humans weigh a lot, and even if they are cooperating, they may not be in a position to help with the lift A patient in a hospital or care home
Box Low – Medium Boxes can be difficult to grip, but may be labelled with the exact weight and contents, allowing for better load assessment Box of miscellaneous stock
Sack with loose contents Medium Although the weight may be known, the contents may shift redistributing the weight, changing how we interact with it Sack of coffee or grain



Another key factor in manual handling risk assessment is the frequency of which the manual handling is taking place.
A great example of this is that something small like a steel hammer weighing 467g is going to pose very little manual handling risk to the average builder or DIY’er. However, the same hammer being lifted and boxed once every 4 seconds on a factory production line could lead to repetitive strain injuries to the musculoskeletal system.

Environmental factors

The environment in which the manual handling task is taking place can be a key contributor towards increased risk.

Cold – A cold environment can lead to reduced feeling in the fingers and hands which can negatively impact manual handling by affecting our grip and the responsiveness of our hands.

Organisation of the working area – When picking up any load, it is essential to have somewhere suitable to put it back down. If the working area is not organised properly, i.e. it’s messy or unclear where something goes, it can increase the risk associated with manual handling.

Workplace culture – The attitudes of staff and managers towards manual handling tasks is an important environmental factor that should be considered when it comes to assessing risk. If there is an attitude of bravado or competition, staff can easily become encouraged to lift things in excess of their physical limit, or improperly. This can also be an indication of a poor health and safety culture on the whole.

The individual

Individuals each have their own physical limitations. When looking at a task it is always important to consult directly with the individual, and to assess whether the task will be safe for the individual. This is particularly important if they may be at increased risk due to pre-existing health conditions or other risk factors.

Can you automate/machine assist the task

Avoiding manual handling where possible is one of the easiest ways to eliminate the risk that manual handling operations pose. When looking at a production line, can a machine be used to automate the process and eliminate the need for manual handling?
Instead of unloading stock from a lorry with our hands we use a forklift, then a pump truck or trolley to get the stock to the shelf. This is routine for most retail settings in the UK but it is a good example of replacing manual handling with automation.

Limiting factors of automation

Budget – Automation technologies can be very costly and the technology available to your organisation may be limited by budget in terms of what you can afford, and what you can afford to get delivered, installed and maintained.

Location and context of task – It will be a while yet before we see a machine capable of safely putting up a scaffolding tower, but it’s not necessarily impossible or unforeseeable. Manual handling may be required depending on the context of the task and the location that the work is happening. In the UK, many organisations will be operating out of buildings that were constructed a long time ago, and are covered by building preservation/conservation regulations. It’s much easier to consider automating a brand-new factory than installing a lift into an existing building.

Loss of human jobs – Ultimately, the easiest way to eliminate risks to health and safety, is to have no humans work for you at all. A fully automated factory doesn’t sleep, eat, take time off or need a doctor. However, if you automate every job, we won’t all live a life of leisure, we’ll just be considered unemployed.

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