Pushing, pulling and lifting are some of the most common cause of occupational fatigue, lower back pain and lower back injuries. This article will look at the issues around these movements, and best ergonomics practices for preventing pain and injury.

Risks associated with pushing, pulling and lifting movements

Pushing, pulling and lifting all have the potential to cause lower back pain and injuries. The risks for pain and injury with these movements can be exacerbated by factors such as:

  • Worker fatigue while performing these movements
  • Sub-optimal techniques and postures for performing these actions
  • Poor ergonomic design of the workstation
  • Workplace dangers such as slippery floors, which could increase the risk of falling while performing these movements
  • Lack of physical strength and fitness status of the worker
  • Repetitive movements with insufficient recovery time
  • Performing complex movements – for example, adding a twist to a bend, push or pull, which makes it more difficult to execute safely
  • Lifting heavy loads, outside the capabilities of the individual

Pushing and pulling are techniques that are carried out in a number of instances in the workplace. These include sliding cartons across floors and tables, and opening and closing doors. Lifting techniques are used to move a variety of objects such as boxes around the workplace.

Let’s take a look at the ways employers and employees can minimize the risk of back pain and injury from these common workplace movements. (Learn more in A Look at Lower Back Pain in the Workplace).

Ways to reduce strain from pushing, pulling and lifting movements

1. Environmental Factors

Ergonomic workstation set up is an important consideration for reducing the incidence of injury from pushing and pulling.(Learn more in The Importance of Setting Up Ergonomic Workstations for Office Workers). Appropriate equipment should also be provided that allows the worker to complete a task safely with a minimal risk of injury. Environmental and equipment related factors to focus on include:

  • Appropriate handholds on equipment to help the worker grip firmly and control loads more easily
  • A pre-planned route for moving a load that is clear enough, smooth enough and wide enough to move the object through
  • Well maintained pushing/pulling equipment if applicable – e.g. trolley wheels in functional, working condition
  • Equipment should be fit for the task and ideally be able to be adjusted to fit the requirements of the worker
  • Avoid steep slopes where possible, which will require an increase in the strength and force required to push or pull a load

2. Personal Factors

It is important to educate employees about how to move their body safely as part of a total ergonomics and wellness plan. Personal responsibility factors related to pushing and pulling movements in the workplace include:

  • Understanding and applying the recommended force limits for horizontal and vertical pushing and pulling
  • Ensuring the pushing or pulling load is appropriate for the individual, seeing as this can be the biggest risk factor for muscle strain or injury.
  • Wherever possible, choose to push loads instead of pull. Pushing is generally associated with a higher risk of injury when compared to pulling. It is easier to apply force when pushing and there is less stress on the muscles than pulling movements produce. It is also easier to see where you are going if you are pushing an object forward, rather than pulling it while walking backwards
  • Begin a pushing or pulling movement slowly. The hardest part of pushing and pulling is usually the force required to get the load moving in the first place. Therefore the initial part of the movement should be approached slowly and carefully
  • Brace your body to prepare for a pushing or pulling movement:
    • Tighten your stomach muscles, keep your knees slightly bent and your back straight
    • Lean forward into the object when pushing, and lean back when pulling heavy objects
    • Take small steps and move slowly
    • Wear appropriate footwear with a good grip to minimize the risk of slipping while pushing or pulling

Ways to lift safely using ergonomic best practices

1. Environmental Factors

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that almost 100 000 workers in private industry suffered from lifting related injuries in 2015. Injuries like these have the potential to be minimized or avoided with the provision of a safe lifting environment and appropriate personal responsibility.

As an employer, consider carrying out an ergonomic assessment as a first step towards a safe environment for employee lifting. This can help identify the factors that might lead to harm when lifting objects in the workplace.

Some ergonomic considerations for a safe lifting environment include:

  • Use machinery such as forklifts and jacks to assist the heavy lifting wherever possible
  • Ramps should be used to transport heavy loads into vehicles, so that they don’t need to be lifted
  • Order products in smaller quantities when possible and work with suppliers to provide smaller, lighter boxes and containers
  • Ensure containers have appropriate hand holds for heavy lifting
  • Supply personal protective equipment wherever possible – e.g. steel capped boots to protect feet from dropped containers
  • Store objects that need to be lifted at an appropriate height. This is between mid-thigh and chest level

2. Personal Factors

Employees are not exempt from personal responsibility when it comes to lifting. It’s important to work with your employees to ensure they understand appropriate lifting techniques and that they know when to ask for help.

Some personal factors to consider for employers and employees when it comes to safe lifting:

  • Ensure that tasks are rotated throughout employees to minimize repetition, and encourage employees to work together to move heavy loads
  • Brace the body to prepare for safe lifting:
    • Bend the knees, keep the chest lifted and the head in line with the spine
    • Lead with the hips and the shoulders will follow
    • Keep the weight close to the body
    • Tighten the abdominals, keep the back straight, and remember to breathe
  • Know your personal limits. Loads that are greater than 50 pounds should require two people to lift them. This needs to be adjusted according to personal strength, health and injury status however. Therefore it may be necessary to lift much lighter loads with the assistance of another person.

Pain and injury from pushing, pulling and lifting may be common in the workplace. However, risks can be heavily reduced by applying the ergonomic and personal factors outlined above.