Pick Up Some Heavyweight Advice for Safer Lifting

Consultation lumbago woman. (Photo Illustration by: Media for Medical/UIG via Getty Images)

When we think about workplace injuries, we tend to think about what happens with tools, equipment, or working in hazardous locations such as on ladders or scaffolding. But more than a third of workplace injuries are the result of something simpler that most of us do several times a day: using our body to lift objects.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 36 percent of workplace injuries that led to lost time involved the back and shoulders, and the biggest factors leading to those injuries were overexertion and cumulative trauma — frequently caused by lifting incorrectly.

Nearly everyone has experienced that “uh-oh” moment when a twinge in your back or shoulders informs you that you’ve lifted something incorrectly. Fortunately, in most of those cases, there’s no lasting damage to your muscles and joints. But in a workplace setting, lifting things incorrectly on a repeated basis, or lifting a single object that’s especially heavy, can have significant consequences that range from muscle pulls to spinal injuries.


Proper postures

When you bend while lifting an object — even if it’s not an unusually heavy item — your back has to support the weight of your upper body along with the weight of the object. By bending, you automatically shift the load away from your body, and the resulting leverage increases the load on your shoulders, back muscles, and lower spine. When you place a load on your shoulder or carry it in one hand or arm, the spine experiences uneven pressure. The worst pressure on your spine occurs when you bend and twist at the same time.

The key to protecting your back, shoulders, and spine while lifting is to take your time and assume the proper posture. Before you start to lift, take just a moment to review the lift and think about what’s involved. Make sure that you know your destination and that the path there is safe and free of obstacles. If you have any doubts about being able to handle the lift by yourself, don’t do it. There’s no shame in asking a co-worker to help you.

Arrange your feet so that your legs can provide the best support. Generally, you’ll want your feet to be at least as wide as your shoulders, which brings your center of gravity lower, so you’ll have more stability. Use your legs to do most of the lifting, because those are among your strongest muscles.

If possible, keep the lift and the object in the middle of your body. If you have to bend while carrying the load, it’s better to bend at the waist instead of the knees. Don’t lift an object that’s below the middle of your thighs, because that causes extra stress on your back, as well as on your legs and knees. And once you’ve lifted the object, don’t raise it above your shoulders, to prevent injuries to your upper back, arms, and shoulders.

As you lift the object, keep it as close to your body as possible. When you keep a load closer to you, it actually takes less effort to lift it. If you hold it farther from your body, the muscles along your spine have to work harder, and can be stressed to the point of injury. Your elbows should stay close to your sides. To turn while carrying the object, move your feet instead of twisting your body.


Engineering safer lifts

The best way to avoid injuries caused by problems when lifting is to arrange the workspace in a way that supports proper lifting procedures. For example, heavy items that will need to be lifted can be stored at a height that places them where workers have their greatest strength. This is the zone that’s roughly between mid-chest and mid-thigh. Racks, shelving, and pallets can be used to raise objects to the optimal height.

Mechanical devices may be used to reduce the burden on workers. Forklifts, hand trucks, pallet jacks, and similar items can transport items with no need for lifting. Ramps and lift gates can also eliminate the need for workers to lift heavy objects. Ladders and aerial lifts place workers closer to overhead objects, so they don’t have to spend as much time reaching or holding objects above their heads.

Adding handholds to objects makes carrying them easier. Suction devices temporarily add a handle to smooth-sided objects that would otherwise be awkward to lift. Items can be removed from containers that are too heavy or difficult to lift, and placed in smaller or lighter containers with proper handholds. In some cases, materials can be ordered in smaller quantities or broken down by the vendor before delivery.


Repetitive and long-duration lifting

Engineering solutions is especially important when it comes to repetitive lifting, or lifts when items have to be held in elevated positions for long periods of time (such as when installing ceiling fixtures). Those activities can lead to back and shoulder injuries, as the ongoing use of the muscles may starve them of nutrients without adequate recovery time between tasks.

The potential for injury can be reduced by ensuring that workers take regular breaks and vary the tasks they are performing. If possible, teams of employees can rotate or share tasks to limit the impact on any one worker. In some cases, items may be preassembled at a more comfortable height, reducing the amount of time spent lifting.

Other strategies include using templates for marking locations where holes are to be drilled, so the workers do not need to lift the objects themselves when drilling. Jigs, work stands, and mechanical devices such as drywall lifts also reduce the potential for injuries.


Environmental impacts

Finally, factors in the worksite environment can increase the potential for injuries caused by lifting. For example, in cold weather, muscles are less flexible, so it’s easier to suffer pulls. In hot weather, workers can suffer from dehydration and fatigue. And when it’s dark (or in poorly lit indoor locations), there’s a greater chance that a worker who is carrying a heavy load may trip or fall over an obstacle. All of those factors are easily mitigated through the use of common-sense procedures such as dressing for the weather, staying properly hydrated, and providing sufficient lighting.

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