Should employers get weighed down by new manual handling research?

A recent medical study casts doubt on long-established thinking on manual handling and employers' liability risks.

Executive summary

As a recent medical study appears to cast doubt on long-established thinking on manual handling, we look at whether employers need to rethink their approach to manual handling in the workplace to avoid exposing themselves to potential liability.

In detail

Despite the significant expansion in mechanisation in the workplace, and the advancements in digitisation and technology, it remains seemingly impossible to avoid any manual handling at work. Whether one’s role requires picking up a pack of paper to reload the office copier, pushing roll cages in depots or handling large products in factories, such manual activity is inevitable. Of course, in most cases the risk of injury is slight, whether that be due to the minimal mass involved, the limited frequency of the operation or the precautions in place to minimise the risk.

Notwithstanding this, statistics from the Labour Force Survey in 2018 suggest that cases of musculoskeletal disorders, including those linked to manual handling, account for more than a third of all work-related illnesses reported each year to the enforcing authorities, with 6.6 million working days lost and 469,000 workers affected. These statistics therefore show that there is still work to do in controlling the costs, both direct and indirect, to businesses and their insurers arising from manual handling.

Given the required focus, how should employers therefore react to new research, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain, and reported in the Telegraph Online on 17 November 2018? Led by Professor Richard Aspden, a group of scientists in the Journal challenge the recommended view to always lift by keeping the back straight and bending the knees, something still advocated by the NHS, (purportedly adopting HSE guidance). Alluding to research conducted on forestry workers which found that those who stooped to pick up their loads expended less energy than those who squatted, the paper argues that there is “no significant difference” in spinal loads and compression forces between straight back lifting and lifting with a rounded back. Indeed the scientists maintain that “round-back lifting” is more efficient and no more hazardous.

This follows research from Aberdeen University which considered the link between back pain in adulthood and spine shape, finding that specific spinal shaping in early old age influences back pain. The impact of trauma does not appear to have been considered in any detail in that research, given its focus. However, as a result, the Journal’s article seeks a review of health and safety guidelines around straight back lifting which they see as based on scant research.

Clearly the findings of this study may have longer term implications for ergonomic guidelines and public health information relating to bending and lifting back postures.

However, for the time being at least, employers should treat the Journal’s conclusions with some caution and avoid a knee jerk, wholesale revision in the guidance, instruction, and training they give to employees to minimise the risk of manual handling-related injuries.

This is for a number of reasons:

  • One of the objectives of the article is to encourage debate on perceived thinking by presenting an alternative point of view. That debate should be encouraged before any such revised guidelines as are deemed necessary (if any) are produced, and policies changed.
  • Any such guidelines, issued by the HSE or other authority to employers and the population as a whole, will never be bespoke or directly applicable to everyone. They will however be designed to assist the majority of cases. Far more wide-ranging research is probably necessary to formulate such wide-ranging new guidelines.
  • To the extent that the article contends that current HSE guidance is flawed in advocating straight back lifting, this is a somewhat simplistic interpretation of existing guidance. In respect of manual handling, the central tenets of any employer’s health and safety policy remain the need to risk assess, remove the need for movement altogether or to automate the transportation of items where possible. Only where this is not possible do the various control measures, which include training instruction and guidance, become relevant. Such HSE guidance for physical lifting doesn’t in fact advocate, as the Telegraph implies, that people should squat, but instead advocates that “a slight bending of the back, hips and knees is preferable to fully flexing the back (stooping) or fully flexing the hips and knees (squatting)”.
  • To date the focus of risk assessing is to assess the tasks and risk arising from them. The focus of this new research, if adopted, would arguably lead to a focus on assessing the individual persons undertaking the tasks and their physical make-up, which arguably becomes impracticable and unwieldy for such wide-ranging tasks as manual handling. Such would also be contrary to the Government’s attempts over recent years to reduce rather than increase the bureaucracy on health and safety for employers.

Conclusion

The research is certainly interesting, and perhaps sparks a useful, necessarily ongoing, debate as to the causes of spinal injury and how the risks of such injuries can be mitigated. That said, it is just one viewpoint in that debate. From the perspective of a dutiful employer and from a liability viewpoint, for the time being at least, the HSE guidelines remain some of the most authoritative guidance available to employers in running their businesses and protecting the safety of their employees.

Unless and until the HSE amend their guidelines to accommodate medical and other studies, such as that reported on in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain, employers should treat the HSE guidance as a sensible yardstick against which to validate their safety measures.

If you have any questions or would like to know more about our legal update, please get in touch with your usual Weightmans contact, or Peter Forshaw (Partner). 

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