Picture this: A worker squats to the ground to pick up a bag of salt, keeping their knees bent and back straight. But the bag is too heavy, and the worker doesn’t have the leg strength to get back up. To compensate, the worker uses back muscles and the spine to lift, ultimately injuring that vulnerable area.
Incidents like this are common and help explain why WSIB claims for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) related to manual materials handling remain at a very high 28 percent.
So what went wrong? “In this case, the worker had some very basic training to ‘keep your back straight and bend your knees,’ but it wasn’t enough,” says Don Patten, WSPS Specialized Services Lead (Ergonomics).
“There are eight additional elements involved in a safe lifting technique. In addition, there are alternative ways to lift besides a squat. This worker needed training and practice on the full range of elements, as well as knowledge about when an alternative lift, such as a lunge lift or deadlift, might be more appropriate and safer.”
Below, Don offers 10 tips for carrying out safe lifts, and provides information on alternative lifts, with video demonstrations.
10 elements to safe lifting technique
"We know that using correct postures and movements while lifting minimizes the stress and load on the spine and other joints," says Don. Here are his 10 tips for postures and movements, and why they are important.
- Have a stable base of support. "Position feet shoulder-width apart, one foot slightly in front of the other. This improves balance and stability and prevents the person from falling over or applying weight unevenly on their back."
- Hold the load as close to the body as possible. Somewhere between the shoulder and waist is ideal. "This helps reduce the strain on the lower back which can lead to injury."
- Keep the natural curve in the back. "This way, the mechanical force will be distributed more evenly over the spine."
- Bend the knees. "The leg muscles will take the load, not the spine."
- Co-contract stomach and back muscles. "This puts the person in a good lifting position and offers protection to the spine."
- Keep shoulders back. "Rounded shoulders while lifting puts stress on the shoulder joints, which can lead to pain in the upper back and neck."
- Stick buttocks out. "This helps to prevent the pelvis from tucking under and the back from rounding - postures that will increase the overload on the lower back when lifting."
- Get a good grip on the object. “A loose grip can cause a person to lose balance, twist, suffer a strain or be struck by the object."
- Use thigh and buttock muscles to lift. "The movement should be in your legs, not your back."
- Breathe, and relax your muscles. "Not breathing during a lift can increase intra-abdominal pressure and the potential for injury. Likewise, tense muscles make it more difficult to lift because the muscles are already working."
Other suggestions on safe lifting (videos)
Depending on the weight and size of an object, other types of lifts may provide better protection to vulnerable back muscles than a squat lift, says Don. These include the golfer’s lift, the lunge lift, and the deadlift.
"It's important for workers and supervisors to know what they look like. However, be aware that they can change when applied in the workplace, so training is required."
Note: The videos below are not intended to be used for training purposes. For training on how to carry out these lifts, and when to use these lifts in the workplace, see the Resources section at the end of this article.
Golfer's lift. This lift can be used to pick up a small or light object on the floor and in a bin. "The same technique a golfer uses on the putting green to retrieve a ball, this lift allows you to hinge at the hips, so you are protecting the small of your back"
Lunge lift. A great technique for lifting uneven and heavy loads like sacks and bags, the lunge lift allows you to get closer to the load and put your hands underneath it to make the lift easier.
Deadlift. This advanced lift is like a squat but uses the muscles in your buttocks and thighs to lift heavy objects.
How WSPS can help
WSPS ergonomics consultants are here to help. Our goal is to provide your business with practical and personalized consulting and training solutions to assist with MSD prevention. Our manual materials handling solutions include: practical and personalized training applying techniques specific to your work environment, instructing lifting coaches, program development and audits, MSD risk assessments and MSD hazard identification.
- View Don Patten’s full series of 60-second Safety Tips on Safe Lifting and Manual Materials Handling
- Safe Lifting & Manual Materials Handling - Supervisor (1 hour, onsite)
- Safe Lifting & Manual Materials Handling (2½ - 3 hours, onsite)
- Manual Materials Handling (1 hour, eCourse)