Food and Drink - Manual handling

Injury statistics

Over 30% of food and drink industry injuries reported to HSE are manual handling injuries such as back injuries, this represents around 1700 acute injuries per year. Manual handling injuries are caused by handling and lifting -60% of the injuries involve lifting heavy objects.

Main causes of injury

In the food and drink industries, most musculoskeletal injuries arise from just 5 causes:

  • stacking/unstacking containers (such as boxes, crates and sacks)
  • pushing wheeled racks (such as oven racks and trolleys of produce)
  • handling drinks containers (such as delivery of casks, kegs and crates).
  • packing products (such as cheese, confectionery and biscuits)
  • cutting, boning, jointing, trussing and evisceration (such as meat and poultry)

These are key tasks to which attention should be paid when carrying out risk assessments.

Managing the risk

  • Identify which tasks present a serious risk of acute injury (e.g. from heavy lifting or repetitive lifting)
  • Assess these tasks in detail to decide what factors lead to the risk
  • Introduce mechanisation where this is reasonably practicable, e.g. powered trucks, conveyors, vacuum lifters, bulk handling or automation
  • Where mechanisation is not possible, introduce measures to prevent injury, e.g. reduce weights of sacks/boxes to 25kg or below, improve ergonomic design of work stations and work areas, job rotation, training, medical surveillance, job transfer
  • Consult fully with trade union safety representatives or other employee representatives and workers to ensure effective and workable solutions to problems.

Mechanical handling unit loads (sacks, boxes etc)

Eliminating unit loads - consider replacing sacks, liquid ingredient containers, boxed ingredients etc. with bulk storage arrangements such as metal silos, bulk liquid containers or 1 or 2 tonne FIBCs (flexible intermediate bulk containers) that can be raised into position by mechanical means (eg by fork-lift truck).

Full mechanical handling - where bulk storage arrangements are not possible, consider installing full mechanical handling options for unit loads. For example vacuum lifting devices, conveyors and computerised vacuum lift-assisted palletisers.

Partial mechanical handling - where full mechanical handling is not reasonably practicable, consider installing devices that assist manual handling. For example scissor lifts with rotating tables to raise or position loads at work height. For sack handling consider platforms adjacent to hoppers to rest sacks on or bag splitters that automatically cut open and tip sacks into hoppers.

Manual handling unit loads (sacks, boxes etc)

Many ingredient suppliers now supply product in weights of 25 kg or lower - a safe weight for most people to lift when held close to the trunk although ergonomic assessment is still needed for these loads. A commonly used 32 kg weight of sack can also be safely handled with proper training by a fit healthy person if there is a more detailed risk assessment and there are no adverse factors such as awkward delivery access, stairs etc.. Heavier loads should ideally be handled using mechanical aids or two people for a combined lift.

Reduced weight of unit load versus increased lifting frequency - in general it is better to reduce the weight of unit loads, even if this means a greater frequency of lifts. For example, it is better to lift 100 x 25 kg containers than 50 x 50 kg ones. But the frequency should not be increased too far as the benefits are diminished by fatigue. When unit weights are decreased it is important that stack heights are not increased to above shoulder height.

Unloading sacks from shipping containers can present particular difficulties due to settlement of sacks in transit and restricted working space. Additionally if shipping containers are coming from abroad it may be difficult to control the sack weight. One method is by use of a tipper lorry which lifts the container to an angle so that the load is tipped out or onto a conveyor.

Ensure good practices are followed - not picking up loads from the floor if possible, adequate space to prevent twisting or bending, a clear level work area, rest breaks when needed, not carrying 'double' loads and job rotation with a non-lifting task.

Ensure boxes and containers have suitable handles or hand-holds.

Further guidance

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Updated 2023-06-15