Tips and Tricks for Non-Standard Lifts

Occupational lifting is responsible for approximately one third of work related injuries annually (U.S. Department of Labour). A large proportion of these injuries are a result of lifting so-called “non-standard objects", which is an umbrella term that covers everything from sacks of flour to human beings. An object can be classified as non-standard for several reasons, including: an uneven weight distribution, difficulty gripping, awkward shape, or object motion (i.e. non-compliant hospital patient, or water sloshing in a large jug). Many of these objects cannot be lifted using standard lifting guidelines and as a result, workers may be exposed to awkward postures or unexpected forces that increase their risk of injury. Unfortunately, there is not one catch-all solution that will facilitate the safe lifting of non-standard objects. Instead, each individual task should be considered and compared to an ideal lift.

To approach improving these lifts, it's important to first have a clear understanding of what an ideal lift is. Under perfect circumstances, the load will:

  • Be directly in front of the individual
  • Have parts that are easy to grip
  • Be no lower than the individual's standing knuckle height

And the individual will:

  • Keep their feet flat on the floor
  • Brace their abdominal muscles and keep their spine neutral
  • Use the muscles of their thigh to create motion through the hips
  • Pull back and pack down their shoulders

With this perfect lift in mind, let's look at some examples of non-standard lifting problems that have been solved using this principle. Paramedics are routinely required to lift people onto a stretcher, and this lift deviates from our ideal lifting guidelines for several reasons. First, patients are often lying on the ground, which is well below standing knuckle height. Second, human beings do not have handles that make them easy to hold onto which makes gripping a challenge. To solve this problem, some paramedic services use essentially a handled harness that slides onto the patient. This device provides something for paramedics to grip when lifting a patient. It also raises the lifting height, as they can lift from the handles rather than scooping underneath the patient. Lifting a person will never be perfect, but this piece of equipment certainly brings paramedics closer to our gold standard of lifting.

Non-standard objects are often lifted by more than one person due to their awkward shape or uneven load distribution. Partner lifting reduces the effort required, but can create challenges that usually spring from the physical characteristics of the people lifting. For example, partners may be different heights, resulting in the taller person stooping down or the shorter person shrugging to keep the load level. The simplest solution to this problem is to match lifting partners. If partners are approximately the same size and strength, many of these challenges disappear on their own. If partner matching is not an option, however, it's important remember that the goal is always to facilitate an ideal lift. One potential solution would be to fit the object with straps and handles of some sort that allow the taller partner to lift without stooping down to their partner's height.

Regardless of the object to be lifted, it's important to keep good lifting principles in mind when trying to improve the safety of a lifting task. Thinking critically about the way people are moving to complete tasks and always striving for better will help move the solution of these problems forward.

Further reading…
Gempler's. (2009). Tailgate Training Tip Sheet No. 55 – Proper lifting for awkward loads. Retrieved from:
Occupational Health and Safety. (2013). What is a safe lift? Retrieved from:
U.S. Department of Labour. (2016). Materials Handling: Heavy Lifting. Retrieved from:

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