While health staff were clapped and supermarket workers thanked for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, those behind the scenes – the food packers and warehouse operatives – were working tirelessly to make sure supermarket shelves were kept well stocked.
These unsung heroes, who tend to work long shifts, are prone to musculoskeletal conditions – back, joint and upper limb pain, caused by long periods of standing and lots of repetition.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the leading causes of working days lost, and are particularly prevalent in healthcare, agriculture, construction trades, postal work and, of course, manufacturing.
Employers have a legal responsibility to protect workers from the risk of injury from hazardous manual handling in the workplace. But what happens when an injury lands a business in court?
Needle v Swallowfield Plc  EWHC 2759 (QB), which was examined in IOSH magazine's March/April 2021 issue, confirmed that context is important when considering whether an activity poses a risk of injury. This includes employee’s training, experience and the frequency of the task being carried out, as well as the manual handling operation itself.
In Dehenes v T Bourne and Son  SLT (Sh Ct) 219, a decree was granted of the sum of £28,500 for a porter who had sustained injury in the course of manoeuvring heavy machinery in a laboratory. His removal company employer had failed to take reasonable care of him, the operation had plainly involved a risk of injury and the risk assessment was neither suitable nor sufficient.
However an appeal in Stewart v Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust was dismissed and concluded that a judge had correctly held that the failure to carry out a risk assessment regarding the lifting of a box did not breach the UK's Manual Handling Regulations in circumstances where the claimant had not shown that there had been a real risk of injury.
Also in Narey v Iceland Foods Ltd  8 WLUK 93 a personal injury claim brought by a former sales assistant who had been injured after a crate of shopping fell onto his foot was concluded that the defendant had not acted in breach of a statutory duty as the risk assessment which had been carried out was a suitable and sufficient assessment of the identified risk.
A recent high-profile case on manual handling was against household goods company Wilko. The retailer was fined £2.2 million after an incident in 2017 at their Leicester store left a 20-year-old employee paralysed, after a cage full of paint tins fell on her. The employee suffered severe spinal injuries after the heavily-laden metal cage fell while she was trying to manoeuvre it out from an uneven lift floor. Her injuries meant she now has to use a wheelchair.
Wilko Retail Ltd admitted four breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act and the court heard how:
- the floor of the main goods lift and passenger lift were not level with the shop floor, and the roll cage which fell on the employee was incorrectly loaded
- employees were not provided with adequate training or supervision on the safe use of roll cages, or safe use of the lifts involved in the accident
- suitable risk assessments had not been carried out, and the general risk assessment covering roll cages did not cover the hazards involved in manoeuvring them on uneven surfaces
- no assessment had been carried out on the manual handling of roll cages, or employees given information on the safe distribution of loads through the roll cage
- the cage was top-heavy, with 87.5 litres of paint stored on the top level, 87 litres on the middle level, and 55 litres on the lower level, making it more likely to topple over.
Wilko was ordered to pay the £2.2 million fine for the first of the four health and safety offences for failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees, imposing no separate penalty for the other three related offences. The retailer was also ordered to pay £70,835 in costs.
Leicester City Council's public safety team manager, Govind Mandora, commented on the case: 'Our team brought this prosecution against Wilko after finding catastrophic health and safety failings at the Beaumont Leys store, which resulted in this devastating accident.
'Simple steps like carrying out adequate risk assessments, proper training and supervision for staff, and properly maintained equipment will help prevent similar accidents happening again.'
The importance of ‘best practice’
Employers should seek to move beyond legal compliance and reach ‘best practice’ in their management of work related risks to employees, contractors and members of the public:
- Training: Before attempting to train anyone, take the time and trouble to find out how workers are actually working and get to understand the types of environment in which they are expected to operate;
- Accident investigation: Information about the immediate and underlying causes of back injuries is often not collected by employers and when it is, it will often not provide adequate information about what the person had been doing at the time and whether it was the individual’s regular job. All back injuries to staff should be investigated so that the appropriate lessons can be learned by management;
- Standardisation of approach: All sectors which involve the carrying, lifting and handling of people are using different techniques, not only across different sectors but within the same sector under different authorities. People should talk to each other to streamline good practice.
- avoid the need for employees to undertake manual handling which involves a risk of them being injured as much as possible
- where avoidance is not practicable, carry out a manual handling risk assessment prior to any manual handling tasks
- provide training and information, including the weight of the load and its heaviest side if its centre of gravity is not centrally positioned, and the equipment and techniques to be used when carrying out a manual handling task
- assess the layout, structure, or nature of the work and the individual capability of staff to reduce manual handling risks
- retain reports on any previous notifiable manual handling incidents and accidents
- give equal consideration to those working away from the employer’s premises.
Employees have a responsibility to use the information and resources given to them. There are some simple steps that can be taken before and during moving a load:
- plan the lift and carefully consider whether additional lifting aids are needed. A manual handling risk assessment may also be required at this stage
- reduce the distance of the lift where possible
- map out your route and remove any objects that may cause an obstruction
- wear suitable clothing that wouldn’t obstruct the lift
- ensure you have a good grip on the load whether lifting, pushing or pulling
- ensure the person handling the load has completed adequate training
- know your limits and be confident to ask for help if needed.
To safely lift a load:
- place feet hip-width apart with one foot slightly in front of each other
- moderate flexion on the back, hips and knees
- grasp the load firmly
- use the leg muscles to lift the load into a standing position.
Whilst holding the load it is important to remember to:
- keep the back straight, avoid twisting or bending
- carry loads with straight arms
- keep the head up and face straight ahead while handling a load
- keep the load hugged in close to the body while moving.
Kelly Atkinson is a legal author at Cedrec Information Systems Ltd