Ergonomics of Materials Handling

6th Apr 2023

Lifting, lowering, and handling loads at work can be so common that we can forget they’re one of the main causes of workplace injuries. Even if it’s not part of your daily routine, you've probably lifted something heavy at work. You likely did not pay much attention about how to reduce the risks of hurting yourself.

Improper load handling  is a concern in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Over the past five years, more than 12% of time loss injuries were due to the handling of loads. More than 40% of these incidents caused injuries to the back.

Dealing with loads over 20 kilograms (44.1 pounds) increases the risk of injuries. That doesn’t mean heavy weight is the only factor. Lifting and lowering a lighter load for several consecutive hours can lead to an increase in fatigue, which often results in injuries.

How do you prevent injuries?

The easiest way to reduce injury risk is by using mechanical help, like hand carts, lifts, hoists, and dolly carts. 

Planning plays a major role in injury prevention and is often neglected by workers and employers. Consider factors like:

  • What is the actual weight of the load?
  • What is the position of the load in relation to the body? (Close or far? High or low?)
  • What is the distance you need to travel? 
  • What kind of body movements are needed to pick it up and move it to its destination?
  • How many movements are performed in a time period? (Five lifts every minute? A single lift every 15 minutes?)
  • How often are loads manipulated during a work day? Is it a small portion of the average tasks of the day, or does is represent the majority of the workload?

Ergonomics can also help lower the number of injuries. Consider the height and depth of shelves and how they can be adjusted to minimize the body movements needed to handle a load. Ideally, materials that need to be moved regularly should be stored between knee and chest height. Workers should be lifted (like on a stepladder or ladder) when they need to pick up materials that are stored higher.

Who’s responsible?

Employers and workers both have an important role to play in the reduction of workplace injuries. 

Employers can: 

  • Implement policies requiring the use of mechanical devices
  • Organize workflow to respect the maximum load a worker can handle during a day, and ensure that workers take appropriate breaks 
  • When possible, reduce heavy loads to multiple smaller ones 
  • Provide appropriate training regarding lifting, lowering, pushing, and pulling materials
  • Improve workplace ergonomics to ensure workers can handle loads in a safe manner

Workers can: 

  • Warm up their muscles before handling a heavier load
  • Take required breaks, and use that time to stretch their muscles
  • Avoid lifting heavy loads above their head
  • Keep their back straight and bend their knees when picking up or lowering a load
  • Avoid twisting their torso while lifting
  • Keep load as close as possible to their body
  • Lift with a coworker when necessary


WSCC’s Safety Spotlight can provide you with more information about the safe handling of loads: 

  • If you don’t use safe handling practices, you’ll most likely end up injuring your back. Read our Safety Spotlight about Back injury to learn how to avoid that situation. 
  • You should never twist your body while manipulating a heavy load. Lifting Safely in the Workplace shows you how to prevent those incidents.

Do you know the maximum weight your employees can lift without the help of mechanical assistance? Do you know how often they can handle a load? WorkSafe BC has two calculators to help you answer those questions: 

CCOHS also has useful resources about Ergonomics and Manual Material Handling