Health protection during lifting and carrying.

How to maintain physical performance throughout the working day

Lifting and carrying heavy loads is part of everyday work in many professions. But this task can put a strain on the entire musculoskeletal system. A high percentage of the working population of adults in Germany have already experienced pain because of this. If the skeletal muscles are overstrained, mobility can quickly be limited. Overstrain to the spine leads to pain and disorders, sometimes even to long-term changes and damage. In individual cases, this can even cause incapacity to work. 

Legal regulation

To avoid serious health impairments, legal limits to load weights are in force. This was specified as early as 1996 with the regulation implementing EU Directive 90/269/EEC. In the directive on health and safety for manual handling of loads at work, every instance of moving a load is precisely regulated. This includes moving and supporting a load using manual force as well as lifting, setting down, pushing, dragging and carrying.

Optimized work conditions and provision of technical aids

According to the legislative authority, work conditions must be organized by the company such that the health risks to employees are kept to a minimum. The workplaces of employees and the working environment must be organized such that they can perform their job as ergonomically favorably as possible. This means that employees must be put into a position that enables them to lift, carry, pull or push loads using the correct posture. Unnecessary loads must be avoided. Because the musculature generates the corresponding counterforce for every load. The physical condition of employees is therefore relevant in relation to manual handling of loads. A fit employee can generally cope with lifting and carrying tasks more easily than one who is unfit. There are recommendations and load limits that relate to age and gender. If these are exceeded, suitable transport means as well as lifting and carrying aids, such as tube lifters or vacuum lifters, must be used. 

Loads or overloads – how much is reasonable?

It is almost impossible to make a generalized evaluation of lifting and carrying tasks without having made an extensive appraisal of the tasks and the workplace beforehand. An examination of the following factors can be helpful.

1. The importance of posture

Posture is of crucial importance when lifting weights. A vertical force or pressure is considered to be optimal. The spine can handle this better than horizontal forces.

2. Closeness or distance to an object

So-called shear forces are generated when a weight is lifted with a large distance between the lifted object and the body. To avoid such one-sided strain, it is recommended to minimise the distance between the object to be lifted or carried. Movements should be carried out as close to the body as possible. It is explicitly advised not to lift with one arm. A simple example of this are young people who casually hang their school bag on their shoulder. The back starts to hurt in the evening. One-sided loads almost always cause pain.

3. (Not) a good turn

Be careful if you have to turn immediately after lifting. Turning motions performed while lifting or carrying place an additional strain on the spine. Such ‘torsion forces’ have a negative effect on the locomotor system.

4. From time to time or every day

How often and for how long it is necessary to lift and carry is decisive. If this is a work process that is regularly repeated in everyday working life, the overall load is higher than it is while only occasionally lifting and carrying heavy loads. In such cases the use of aids such as vacuum lifters should be a matter of course. Vacuum lifters are available in a number of different models, depending on the weight of the load that needs to be lifted. Suction lifters and tube lifters make it easier to lift loads of several hundred kilograms.

5. Better warm and well clothed

The ambient temperature when lifting is also decisive. Above all, cold is problematic. The human musculature is less resilient in general when working outside or in cooled rooms than it is in warm surroundings. It can therefore be helpful to warm up a little before lifting or carrying activities. The right clothing for employees is a further factor. Footwear above all plays an important role.

When lifting, the back should be as straight as possible, the load is lifted evenly from the knee and hip joints. The centre of the load should be as close as possible to the body's centre of gravity. If possible, lifting aids should be used.

If it is impossible to get around lifting and carrying

It can always happen that, even in companies where it is generally not necessary to move loads, some loads must be temporarily lifted and carried. Imagine an office in which full document files need to be sorted at the start of the year or machines such as faxes or printers must be moved. It is not always possible to avoid lifting and carrying loads. In practice it is beneficial for employees to have attended targeted training where they have been taught how to lift loads correctly. Employees should be instructed at least once a year in how to use work technology and methods of lifting and carrying that protect their back. 

More legwork, better to go twice

It is better to distribute the load to the leg and arm musculature when lifting. The back should be kept as straight as possible when lifting. Bending over while lifting means an uneven load is placed on the spine. It is best to transport loads as close to the body as possible. It is easier and more effective not to move everything at once. It is better to carry small loads and make the trip several times.

A case for the company doctor

If employees need to regularly handle larger loads manually, whether they are physically suited to do so must be checked. This can be clarified by an examination by the company doctor. Medical experts can also help by providing instruction on the right lifting techniques and train the employees accordingly. Under some conditions, disorders to the spinal region can result in an occupational illness. For example “a lumber spine disorder attributed to injury to the intervertebral disks caused by many years of lifting and carrying heavy loads” is recognized by the German federal government and is included on the list of occupational illnesses. 

Employers' obligations, in dialogue with the employees

Employers are obliged to organize the work processes within their company appropriately. The safety and the health of the employees cannot be put at risk at any time. The legislators put explicit emphasis on protecting the lower back. A joint approach to finding solutions would be ideal in this situation. Here the company and the employees can determine suitable measures for the respective operations together and then implement them. Trained employees are generally able to evaluate very well which vacuum lifter is the right one. Together it is possible to consider whether the tube lifter is sufficient or whether a more powerful model needs to be procured.