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Manual handling - when is a load too heavy to lift by hand?

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Surprisingly, the answer to this question is not entirely clear cut. As the Victorian Trades Hall Council's OHS Reps @ Work website notes, in Victoria there is not actually a legally mandated limit to the maximum amount of weight an employee can manually lift.

Rather, Victorian OHS legislation refers to hazardous manual handling, stating that employers need to identify tasks that involve hazardous manual handling, and then take actions to either eliminate or reduce the hazard and associated risks.

The Federal Government sheds a little more light on the situation, classifying 'heavy work' as work requiring lifting and carrying up to 45 kilograms on an occasional basis.

The National Code of Practice for Manual Handling states:
"as weight increases from 16 kilograms up to 55 kilograms, the percentage of healthy adults who can safely lift, lower or carry the weight, decreases. Therefore, more care is required for weights above 16 kilograms and up to 55 kilograms in the assessment process. Mechanical assistance and/or team lifting arrangements should be provided to reduce the risk of injury associated with these heavier weights."
(Australian Safety and Compensation Council 2005)

Safe manual lifting, then, can broadly be defined as the careful lifting of weights of up to 45 kilograms, provided this is not a regular part of the work of an employer. Loads up to 55 kilograms can be manually lifted pending a risk assessment.

To minimise the risk of injury when lifting such loads, workers and employers should:
  • hold loads close to the body
  • store loads close to where they will be used and try to store heavy items near waist height
  • not lift, push or pull anything too heavy – break the load down into smaller lots
  • use mechanical aids such as a trolley or get help when lifting heavy loads; and
  • not lift heavy items while they are sitting down.
For workers who have difficulty lifting and moving objects up to 45 kilograms, WorkCover NSW provides a list of strategies that can assist.

WorkCover NSW suggests that where manual lifting of these objects unassisted is not an option, employers should:
  • consider completely removing or eliminating the person's requirement to lift by job design, where possible
  • consider breaking down the load into lighter components or replace lifting a load with pushing a load (for example, using a trolley)
  • try to decrease the frequency of lifting during the day where possible
  • use a trolley or manual handling equipment
  • modify work systems and practices (for example, job rotation, good housekeeping, location of products being lifted)
  • ensure workers operate equipment safely and properly to minimise manual handling, manual handling training to assist with safe work practices for lifting and lowering; and
  • provide personal protective equipment such as gloves, footwear, protective clothing or back braces (usually recommended for heavier lifting).
Failing this, Ferret.com.au provides an extensive directory of materials handling equipment, both for heavier loads and to assist workers in safely and efficiently shifting lighter loads.

These include:

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