Rules, regulations and guidelines related to manual handling are getting more stringent. What was commonly accepted little more than a decade ago is now prohibited by new legislation. The challenge facing many businesses is how to comply with the current requirements and provide a safer working environment for their employees without overburdening themselves with excessive cost or technical complexity.
The latest HSE figures show that in 2004/5 around 1.9 million working days were lost through injuries caused by handling, lifting or carrying and that each incident resulted in around 9.3 days off work. This figure, which implies over one million people were directly affected, accounts for over one quarter of days lost through work related injuries. Other reported figures suggest that the main reason for time off work is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused or made worse by current or past work, with handling a contributory factor. Almost 11 million working days were lost to MSDs in 2006/7.
One of the weapons in the fight against workplace injuries is to reduce or remove the risk. For manual handling the simplest way is to eliminate the task. This is clearly not practical in many cases so the next best option is to provide employees with an alternative method of lifting and handling. If, as another HSE statistic suggests, around 47 per cent of the workforce has a job that involves manual handling this could be one of the most important health and safety decisions a company can take. Incidentally, the HSE figures also suggest that handling related accident rates are higher at businesses with more than 25 employees so anyone under the impression that this someone elses problem should think again.
Current regulations require that employers avoid the need for hazardous manual handling so far as is reasonably practicable. There are no set limits for the maximum weight that can be lifted safely but the HSE recommends that men should not lift more than 25kg to any height under any circumstances (women no more than 13kg). These guidelines are for infrequent operations - fewer than 30 operations per hour - where work is reasonably paced, adequate pauses or use of different muscles are possible, and the load is not supported by the handler for any length of time. The maximum recommended weights are reduced significantly if operations are more frequent. Although these are not limits, working outside them is likely to increase the risk of injury and alternative practices are clearly advisable.
For many applications that involve handling items on and off a commercial vehicle a crane or platform lift can be a practical and affordable solution. Vehicle mounted cranes are versatile for general load handling and applications such as where the load size may vary, when the item cannot easily be moved towards the vehicle, or when the requirement is to access both sides and the rear of the vehicle. Equipped with a winch a crane is also suitable for handling items below ground level. Vehicle mounted platform lifts are also good for general load handling and are especially useful for items that can be rolled onto the platform or moved with a trolley or similar device. Models are available for mounting at the side of the vehicle as well as the rear which is why the term tail lift tells only half the story.
The traditional view is that cranes and platform lifts are only viable for handling larger items but the latest models from the leading manufacturers are suitable for all loads covered by the current manual handling regulations. They are designed specifically for use on most light commercial vehicles and can be installed with little or no modification to the chassis or bodywork. Entry level models with maximum lifting capacities of around 250kg are ideal for many applications but will not impinge unduly on the carrying capacity of the vehicle. Larger models with maximum capacities up to around 2000kg for cranes and 500kg for platform lifts are available for mounting on virtually any size and shape of commercial vehicle to suit most applications.
Bearing in mind that these products are generally used by people who are more concerned with other aspects of their work they need to be easy to operate, robust and reliable. There is no point in equipping vehicles with something that is difficult to use or has features that are not required. The best designs will be simple to use and efficient. There is a trend towards greater use of hydraulic power as this offers a number of benefits in terms of handling precision, performance and operational safety.
Whatever the choice, load handling equipment should only be used after staff have received proper training and the appropriate risk assessments have been completed. This is not difficult and should help to ensure that companies and their employees continue to carry out their tasks as safely and efficiently as possible.