December Newsletter:

Strategies for Improving Manual Material Handling Practices

This article was featured in our December 2015 email newsletter. Click here to subscribe to receive future newsletters directly to your inbox.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour conducted a manual material handling (MMH) blitz, from September 14 to October 23, 2015, at various workplaces across the province. According to reports, MMH related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) accounted for 44% of lost time claims, 913,000 days lost, and millions of dollars spent. However, with the knowledge and technology available today, the idea that a task such as lifting or pulling can cause injury should occur rarely, not frequently. The steps to controlling various workplace hazards are well documented so how do we apply them in a manual material handling setting to effectively reduce injury risk?

A tried and true process for investigating MMH injuries involves 4 basic steps:

  1. Identify the hazard
  2. Assess the hazard
  3. Implement controls
  4. Monitor and review the controls

In theory, this is a simple process, however, in practice, it may be overwhelming. Consider these few tips to help get you started.

Tips for Better Material Handling


Ensure that you inspect for the noticeable issues, but even more important is to dig deep for the root cause(s). Identifying the larger root cause of a MMH hazard is most likely to minimize the risk of the issue reoccurring. A good example of this might be identifying high push forces (i.e. the noticeable cause) that a worker is employing against a load, but further identifying that this force is necessary due to improper castors (i.e. the root cause) on the cart.


As a Health and Safety professional, assessing the hazards means doing so with an objective eye. Several tools have been developed to ensure that the MMH practices do not exceed what the average person is capable of and can be implemented at a variety of workplaces. During an assessment, ensure that these tools (i.e. NIOSH, Liberty Mutual Tables, etc.) are appropriately used to objectively determine whether or not controls are necessary to be implemented.


Try not to fixate on the cost to implement certain controls, especially if it’s going to minimize, or eliminate the hazard thereby significantly reducing the likelihood of injury. In the above scenario regarding high push forces, if retrofitting the cart with the proper castors reduces the push force and means never receiving another injury claim, why not implement it? A control may cost $10,000 to enact, however, if the alternative is to pay $20,000 for an injury claim, what financial sense is there in not implementing the new strategy?


Objectivity is key to the process. To concretely review the implemented controls, objective data and information must be gathered to determine its effectiveness. For example, gather and compare data regarding the number of injuries before and after the enactment of controls to assess if further work is required. Or determine the necessary physical demands, including the weights of loads, distances to push/pull/carry the loads, and the duration and frequency of these tasks and ensure that the implemented MMH controls fall within ergonomic industry guidelines (e.g. NIOSH, Liberty Mutual Tables, ANSI, etc.). And most importantly, ask yourselves, have new problems arisen from these changes? If so, maybe that root cause was not properly identified in the identification phase.

It takes much thought, collaboration, and effort from several different parties to improve manual material handling practices. But hopefully these simple tips help you along your journey to a safer workplace.


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