Keeping a healthy spine in your ball-park figure
By Sean Whitaker
Grounds maintenance is literally a field of opportunity. But unfortunately, in terms of human vertebrae and connecting ligaments, not all those opportunities can prove healthy. In my time as a safety consultant I have come across numerous groundsmen who speak ruefully of back injuries they incurred years ago, which they still carry as strains and sprains today. Anyone who's worked in the profession knows only too well that things must be moved from A to B, sometimes with limited time and less than ideal equipment. Inevitably, the temptation is always there to haul the load over the shoulder and be done with it.
But that might just get you a subscription to the largest accident group in the UK. Currently the Health and Safety Executive estimates that 38% of all three-day injuries in the UK are from lifting objects - and 47% of those are back injuries. That's a lot of pain indeed. And within agriculture and construction, 33% and 35% of all injuries are from lifting objects. So forget the over-the-shoulder-trick for a minute or two…Let's think a bit.
The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 limit the loads people are expected lift at work. These Regulations basically make four statements: (1) By law the employer must take every practicable measure to avoid the need for employees to lift loads. When manual handling is necessary, employers must do three things: (2) they must assess the risk for each task; (3) they must reduce the risk to as low as reasonably practicable; and (4) they must give their employees training in safe lifting techniques. So in the real world, what does all that mean? It means there are four practical and realistic things you need to remember, which I will call the Four Golden Rules for Spinal Bliss. The first Golden Rule is simple: avoid lifting anything at all whenever possible! Use trolleys, use hoists, use lighter materials, put things on wheels, use trucks with crane arms, make portability a criterion when purchasing equipment, enjoy finding ways of moving things without exerting yourself (or burdening your mates!). And the second Golden Rule is this: employers must assess all manual handling tasks undertaken by their employees to determine whether those tasks comply with the Regulations. The rule applies to all lifting tasks. New tasks or changes to old tasks will require new assessments. Diagrams published by the HSE show load limits in ten zones around the body, where these zones are defined by reach distance and height above the ground, as shown in the Figure. For example, close to the body and at hip height, your absolute heaviest one-off lift should be 25kg if you are male and 16kg if you are female. Other zones have lower maximums because they would require you to adopt more risky postures. For example, the maximum one-off load close to the feet is 10kg for men. The situation is a little more complicated if you will be twisting as you lift the load or if you are lifting objects with a frequency of more than 30 lifts per hour. In this case the maximum loads in the Figure must be modified. For example, if you are twisting 45 degrees and performing four to eight lifts per minute, the absolute maximum loads close to the body and at hip height are 11kg for men and 7kg for women.
The Health and Safety Executive offers some excellent free booklets describing the assessment method and I've listed a few of them at the end of this article. When you're using the zone approach to assessing the acceptability of lifting tasks, be sure to consider all the zones the load passes through. For example, imagine a 15kg bag of sand lifted as a one-off lift and without any twisting of the body. The zone diagram says it's acceptable to carry that load close to the body at hip height. But wait, the zone diagram also shows that the load limit at ground level is 10kg. So, in fact, the lift is unacceptable. There are a couple of other things to bear in mind: be sure to take account of twisting and repetition in your assessment; and be sure you know the correct weight of the object. As well as being a legal requirement, these assessments have a definite role to play in reducing the risk of grounds maintenance tasks. They are essential as a starting point for developing better lifting strategies. As a health and safety consultancy, InterAction of Bath has developed a simple and user-friendly software tool called InterHSE, which vastly speeds up the process of assessing manual handling. The tool also shows you the safe reach limits for any given load. You can find more details at www.ergonomics.uk.net. So, you've avoided all lifting tasks wherever possible. And you've made your assessment of any necessary lifting tasks. And, yes, some tasks are decidedly dodgy. So what do you do? Here comes The Third Golden Rule for Spinal Bliss: if assessments reveal any lifts as unacceptable, the employer must take action. And here are the main options for action: Change the load: use a lighter material; carry it less frequently; carry less of it more frequently; share the load with somebody else; make the load stable; make it easier to carry (perhaps by changing the container or adding handles); stick wheels on it and make it roll-able… Change the environment: use raised surfaces (ideally at hip height) for picking up loads putting them down; avoid moving loads from one level to another; design the task to avoid twisting of the body during the lift; ensure surfaces are flat and slip-free; bring workstations closer to minimise carrying distance… Provide lifting equipment: consider wheels, hoists, trolleys, trailers, cranes, jacks, fork lifts, electric carts, trucks… Clearly, the Third Golden Rule might require some consideration on your part, perhaps with some lateral thinking or innovation and a few discussions with other staff. But in five years of making assessment, I can say that the best results use low-tech solutions applied sensibly, and usually inexpensively. Admittedly, there may be times when tasks will take longer because of your modification, but that's not necessarily the case. And anyway, a few minutes' delay is nothing compared to a few years walking as like a hunchback. Alright, fine. What now? Now for the Fourth Golden Rule: the employer must provide training for any manual handling tasks undertaken at work. The training should cover manual lifting techniques and the proper use of lifting equipment. Once again, this rule isn't expensive to observe. You don't have to out-source the training, just as long as the information given to employees is sufficient for them to perform their tasks safely. Unfortunately there isn't room here to describe a typical syllabus, but you can get all the information you need from the leaflets listed at the end of this article. Once you've made a few assessments and implemented a few improvements you'll have more faith in the process. You should also be motivated by legal responsibilities. Believe me, employers are sued, and often successfully, for breach of care in failing to minimise the risks. And recently there's been a move within legal circles to make employers personally liable for negligence; in other words, liability insurance is out the window; any fines come directly from the employer's pocket money. On more than one occasion, my colleagues at InterAction of Bath have acted as expert witnesses in court cases where an employer is charged with negligence. So, there they are - the Four Golden Rules for Spinal Bliss. You can find out more about reducing the risk of manual handling in the references I've listed below. Please feel free to contact InterAction of Bath if you have any queries. We also provide manual handling assessments and training on request. InterHSE. This is a manual handling assessment software package and you can view it on line at InterAction of Bath. Alternatively you can call us on 01225-482-882. Getting to Grips with Manual Handling. This HSE booklet gives a good summary of the issues. It is available on request or on line at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg143.pdf Are You Making the Best of Manual Handling Aids? This HSE booklet has solutions that you might find useful for grounds maintenance work. It is available free on request or on line at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/as23.pdf Manual Handling Assessment Chart Tool. This is a paper-based tool developed by the HSE and you can use it to assess the risks of manual handling tasks. It's available free on request or on line at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg383.pdf Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992: Guidance on Regulations. You can purchase this very comprehensive booklet by contacting the HSE.