Back to Basics: How to safely lift and carry heavy loads

I am struck with a mild sense of guilt that we see an average of two patients a week whose back injury has been caused by lifting or carrying weights “the wrong way”, yet we have not yet hatched a blog entry providing some common sense advice on lifting ergonomics “the right way”.

Whenever you need to lift or carry a load of any consequence, it is always useful to plan rather than charge head-down as too many of us do.

Step 1. Planning the Route

When getting a heavy item from point A to B, consider the following:

  1. Start with the destination: do you know where it is? Is it safe to unload? Is there an obvious, clear space where to unload? Can you unload “ergonomically” (see below)?
  2. Check the route travelled: is the route clear, wide enough and free from obstruction? are there any tight passages requiring a change of hold, some “squeezing through”? are there any sharp corners, projecting features (e.g. ledges, shelves, nails etc.)?
  3. If the route is long and the load heavy: are there easy places where to unload safely and rest?
  4. If the carrying involves two people: can you maintain good eye and voice contact throughout? If not, can a third person be recruited to guide and co-ordinate?
  5. The load itself: is the load stable? is the weight evenly distributed? is it easily gripped and carried? Do you need to measure up to check it will get round tricky corners or restricted passages?

Step 2. Addressing the Lift

  1. Plan the lift: assess weight-load, identify grip points, plan if possible to lift facing the direction of the carrying route
  2. Bracing to lift: place your feet shoulder apart or slightly wider, keeping the lead leg as far forward as is comfortable; keep shoulders level and head straight; squat down with a straight back, breathing in; get a firm grip on the load, hooking fingers together if possible, and “hugging” the load as close to the body as feasible
  3. Lifting the load: breathe out, contract your abdominal muscles, and lift using your legs, not using your back; don’t jerk, lift smoothly, “hugging” the load as close to the body as possible at all times
  4. Carrying the load: Move and turn using your legs, do not turn using your trunk; as relevant, keep the load’s heaviest side hugged to the body; plan some rest stops on route as required
  5. Putting the load down: if feasible, plan to put it down on a higher support so that you don’t need to put it back on floor; if that is necessary, breathe in, then squat whilst breathing out and contracting your abdominal muscles, with one foot forward; adjust the load’s position so that is may not fall from a higher support.

Please note that much of this lifting advice applies even for much smaller objects.

One last message which may sound mercenary, but isn’t meant that way: if you feel you’ve “ricked” your back lifting, do not pretend it hasn’t happened, but seek professional advice fast. We treat all sorts of patients for back injuries – not just Heathrow baggage handlers – so you are not alone.

Aside of this – happy and safe lifting! However, if the advice comes too late and you already are in pain, please contact us on 01895 2000 50 (read more about our treatment for neck/back pain and injuries, what to expect and case studies here). Alternatively, if you’re reading this at your workplace, Bridge to Health also runs tailored, onsite workplace safety workshops and ergonomic assessments – our post about helping sick employees and preventing workplace injuries should be of interest.

N.B.: Some material from this article has been inspired by the Manual Handling Regulations, 1992

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