Manual handling injuries and the tasks that cause them are an issue for many occupations and industries, and the healthcare profession is no exception to these injuries. Unfortunately, statistics show that healthcare workers may be over-represented in these figures, facing higher incidences of injury that the average.

A study in the US has found that work related injuries suffered by paramedics could be significantly reduced by the use of powered stretchers. The study found that by replacing manual stretchers with a battery-powered hydraulic system and assisted ambulance loading could reduce musculoskeletal injuries by as much as 78%, as less heavy lifting would be undertaken.

Paramedics also face spine compression that is well above the threshold limit, handling approximately 140kgs (made up of the weight of the stretcher plus the weight of the injured person) every time they raise, lower or lift the stretcher.

These factors place a lot of pressure on the body, and require specific attention from employers to ensure that these workers don’t suffer injuries related to these tasks, and the other physical stressors associated with their roles.

Back home in Australia our health and aged care workers are also at a high risk of injury from performing manual handling tasks such as transferring or moving patients.

Nurses and caregivers in both hospitals and residential care facilities suffer one of the highest levels of work-related back injuries compared to any other profession, accounting for over 70% of all injuries in the nursing profession.

So what are some of the manual handling tasks that could give rise to injury and what are your options if you have suffered such an injury? We investigate.

Workers who perform manual handling tasks are placed at a greater risk of suffering from musculoskeletal injuries. Manual tasks require people to lift, lower, push, pull, carry or otherwise move, hold or restrain any person, animal or thing.

Characteristics of hazardous manual tasks include:
  • Repetitive or sustained force;
  • High or sudden force;
  • Repetitive movement;
  • Sustained or awkward posture;
  • Or, exposure to vibration.
Hazardous manual handling tasks are the primary cause of musculoskeletal injuries, also known as manual handling injuries, and most often affect the back, shoulder and upper arm, or the wrist and lower arm.

A musculoskeletal injury includes:
  • Muscle sprains and strains;
  • Ligament or tendon rupture;
  • Prolapsed intervertebral discs;
  • Tendinitis of the shoulders and elbows;
  • And, carpal tunnel syndrome.
Musculoskeletal injuries are the cause of over 50% of all workers compensation claims received each year in Queensland. According to WorkCover Qld data, in 2014-15 over 40,000 musculoskeletal injury claims were lodged across all industry sectors with an average cost of $7,059 per claim.

The top 3 most common causes of musculoskeletal injuries are:
  • Lifting, carrying or putting down objects;
  • Falls;
  • And, repetitive movement or strain.
Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics also shows that of 531,800 people who suffered a work related injury in 2013-14:
  • 34% sustained their injury through lifting, pushing, pulling, or bending;
  • 20% through hitting or being hit by an object;
  • 13% through a fall;
  • 9% through repetitive movement with low muscle loading.
It is therefore crucial that an employer minimises the risk of workers sustaining these types of injuries, including manual handling injuries.

An employer has a primary duty to ensure the health and safety of their workers in the workplace. An employer must, as far as it is reasonably practicable, minimise the risk of injury to their workers by eliminating or minimising hazards in the workplace, including manual handling tasks.

If an employer fails in this duty, and a worker is injured as a result of this failure, then this worker may be successful in a claim for negligence against their employer.


So how can employers minimise the risk of a worker suffering a musculoskeletal injury?

To reduce the risk of a musculoskeletal injury occurring from a manual handling task an employer should:
  • Identify manual handling hazard that could give rise to a risk of injury;
  • Assess the risk of injury for performing a manual handling task by conducting a risk assessment;
  • Implement control measures that either eliminate the risk or minimise it through design changes;
  • And, monitor and review controls to ensure they are working and new problems have not been created.
While the primary duty to ensure safety in the workplace falls on the employer, workers also have a legal responsibility to ensure their safety and the safety of others in the workplace.

Healthcare workers must:
  • Take reasonable care to ensure the health and safety of themselves and others (including clients and other workers);
  • Report any and all incidents or hazards associated with manual handling immediately to the shift supervisor (including any changes to patient care plans);
  • Always follow safe manual handling practices and techniques and use equipment according to workplace training that you have received;
  • And, be free from the influence of drugs and/or alcohol while at work.

What should you do if you have sustained a musculoskeletal injury while at work?

If you have suffered an injury at work, or because of your work, you may be able to claim compensation from WorkCover Qld or a relevant self-insurer providing certain conditions are met.

If your application for compensation is accepted you will be entitled to receive statutory benefits for the period of time you are incapacitated for work by reason of your injury (or for another period of time stipulated by law). This compensation will include allotments for; medical and rehabilitation expenses, lost wages and potentially a lump sum payment if you have suffered a permanent impairment.

If offered a lump-sum amount from WorkCover, you should always discuss this with an expert lawyer, as once this amount is accepted you will not be able to access a common law claim for additional compensation, even if you’re entitled to it. You can read more about this here.

While not all manual handling tasks are hazardous employers should identity those that are and ensure they are managed effectively. If they fail to do this and a worker is injured then they may be found to be liable in that workers claim for negligence.

Musculoskeletal injuries such as sprains and strains caused by manual handling tasks such as lifting, pushing, pulling and bending are by far the greatest contributor to the overall injuries suffered by aged care and other health care workers. In 2012, more than three quarters of aged care facilities reported a work related injury or illness in the previous three months.

Looking after worker safety should be of the utmost importance for all employers. This is especially important when considering the alarming workplace injury statistics surrounding healthcare workers.

Employers of these workers must prioritise their health and safety so that they can continue to look after the members of the community who are most in need.

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