Preventing hazardous manual task injuries in the manufacturing industry

The manufacturing industry relies on workers being able to perform manual tasks to get the job done whether it’s handling raw materials, working on a conveyor line or operating machinery.

Female in hi vis at printer

Most jobs in the manufacturing industry involve manual tasks, from lifting, pushing or pulling objects, to using the computer.

Some manual tasks are hazardous and may cause musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Back injuries are one type of MSD, however MSDs include a range of injuries such as sprains and strains of muscles and soft tissue, as well as damage to joints, bones and nerves. An MSD can result in discomfort, muscle aches or chronic pain.

In the 2018 policy renewal year (PRY) approximately 6,327 claims were made as a result of a hazardous manual task injury. icare's data shows that on average, it cost $29,000 for each manufacturing worker's hazardous manual task injury claim, with the total gross cost for these claims being a staggering $169 million in this period.

As an employer in the manufacturing industry, here are some important steps to help keep your workers and workplace safe.

Risk management for hazardous manual tasks

The best way for employers to manage hazardous manual task risks is to apply a systematic risk management process and to consult with workers to ensure they understand the process and what they can do to prevent injuries.

All manual tasks should be carried out safely, yet it's important to understand the difference between a 'manual task' and a 'hazardous manual task' so you can concentrate on both effectively managing potential risks and fulfilling your legal obligations.

The SafeWork NSW code of practice Hazardous Manual Tasks (under the WHS codes of practice tab) defines a hazardous manual task as a task requiring a person to lift, lower, push, pull, carry or otherwise move, hold or restrain any person, animal or thing involving one or more of the following characteristics:

  • repetitive or sustained force
  • high or sudden force
  • repetitive movement
  • sustained or awkward posture
  • exposure to vibration. 

The Hazardous Manual Tasks code of practice is one of the most important resources employers can use to manage the risks associated with hazardous manual tasks and to prevent this type of injury. It has information including:

  • employers' and workers' legal obligations
  • a description of the risk management process
  • practical examples of risk control measures
  • diagrams that demonstrate how postures and movements affect the risk of injury
  • a hazardous manual task identification worksheet.

The risk management process

Step 1: Identify hazardous manual tasks

The first step in the risk management process is to identify tasks that have one or more of the above characteristics. Three methods that all employers can apply to identify hazardous manual tasks are:

  1. Consulting your workers
  2. Reviewing available information such as incident reports, inspection reports and workers compensation claims
  3. Observing manual tasks.

Step 2: Assess hazardous manual task risks

The code states that employers should carry out a risk assessment, in consultation with workers, for any manual tasks that you have identified as being hazardous (unless the risk is well known, and you know how to control it).

A risk assessment can help you determine:

  • which postures, movements and forces of the task pose a risk
  • where during the task they pose a risk
  • why they are occurring
  • what needs to be fixed.

Step 3: Apply risk control measures

WHS law requires employers to work through the hierarchy of control measures when managing risks from hazardous manual tasks.

The hierarchy ranks control measures from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. Further guidance on the risk management process and hierarchy of control measures can be found in the SafeWork NSW code of practice How To Manage Work Health And Safety Risks (under the WHS codes of practice tab).

Step 4: Review risk control measures

WHS law also requires employers to review and, as necessary, revise control measures associated with hazardous manual tasks, so the controls remain effective for the duration of the work.

You may use the same methods as in Step 1 to check the control measures. Remember, when reviewing control measures, consult with as many workers who conduct the work as is reasonably practicable.

Preventing injuries through meaningful consultation

Regular, two-way conversations with your workers about manual tasks they perform is a proactive way for you to understand the potential impact of the associated risks and how to work together to reduce them.

Meaningful consultation where employees' opinions are listened to also encourages a positive and safe workplace culture.

Elements of a good safety culture include:

  • offering ongoing education and training about healthy practices, such as taking regular breaks, changing posture, and using correct techniques for performing all tasks
  • managers watching out for workers and setting an example by also taking regular breaks and prioritising safety and wellbeing
  • regularly checking in with workers about how they're going at work to identify issues and allow for early intervention to prevent injuries.

Early consultation and identification of risks can allow for more options to eliminate or minimise risks and reduce the associated costs.

Further guidance on effective health and safety consultation and its benefits can be found in the SafeWork NSW code of practice Work Health And Safety Consultation, Cooperation And Coordination (under the WHS codes of practice tab).