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Safety first: Understanding and preventing material handling injuries

June 18, 2024

The movement, storage and handling of materials is a critical process for the success of most businesses. When material handling is not properly considered, it can lead to an increased risk of significant injury and result in operational disruptions that have extensive financial impact. From a safety standpoint, injuries related to material handling are the leading cause of worker injuries resulting in days away from work. Recent data indicates an alarming total of 976,090 cases of musculoskeletal disorders in the private sector during the 2021-22 period, with 502,380 of these cases resulting in days off work.1

This article will help you discover how effective material handling practices can safeguard your team from injury and protect your business.  We will explore material handling techniques, common injuries associated with them and reveal actionable strategies to prevent such injuries.

Types of material handling

Material handling refers to the movement, control, storage and protection of materials, products and goods. It involves tasks and processes related to transporting, positioning and managing materials, such as raw materials, components, finished products, or equipment, throughout the stages of production and distribution. Material handling can be broadly categorized into two types: manual and mechanical.

  1. Manual material handling: This involves tasks like carrying, lifting, holding, and moving materials by hand. Workers often perform these tasks individually, and the risk of injury increases with the weight and size of the materials, body position, and frequency of lifting.
  2. Mechanical material handling: This includes the application of robotics and equipment for rapid, repetitive movement of materials. While these machines can increase efficiency, they also bring their own set of safety challenges.

Understanding the risks

Both manual and mechanical material handling processes pose distinct risks to workers. Factors like overexertion, poor ergonomics, lack of proper training, heavy loads, awkwardly shaped materials and environmental conditions (such as slippery floors or inadequate lighting) contribute to the risk of injuries.

Manual material handling often results in musculoskeletal disorders such as strains, sprains and repetitive injuries due to the physical exertion required.  These are rarely fatal but can have long-term, life-changing impact. Mechanical material handling involves greater force or speed, which often results in risks such as workers being caught in or struck by equipment. These forces and the loads handled increase the risk of severe or fatal injury results.

It is important to understand these material-handling injury risks, identify them within the workplace, and provide solutions to reduce these risks to prevent employee injuries.

Preventing material handling injuries

Employers should take a proactive approach to manage material handling risks. Whether manual or mechanical, here are some key injury prevention strategies to enhance workplace safety during material handling tasks:

Assess the tasks. Enlist the support of workers, managers and other key stakeholders to carefully evaluate the jobs performed by both machines and employees. The team should identify potential injuries that can arise from equipment use and manual tasks. Consider that some mechanical handling tasks include manual handling elements (e.g., rigging a load for movement by a crane).

Address ergonomics. Ergonomic design plays a crucial role in preventing musculoskeletal injuries , which often lead to lost work time.2 Employers should analyze past injuries to identify problem areas and provide training on proper lifting techniques.

When lifting materials must be done, one way to help employees work safely is to apply the acronym “KIND”:

  • Keep it close: Keep the load close to the body. The further away the hands are from the spine, the greater the force on the back.
  • In strike zone: Keep the load within the “strike zone” – i.e., above the knees and below the chest
  • Nose and toes aligned: If they are pointing in the same direction, then you aren’t twisting at the trunk.
  • Don’t lean or look down: This puts the back out of its natural alignment.

Designing lifting tasks with KINDness in mind and teaching employees to lift KINDly will go a long way to preventing lifting-related musculoskeletal disorders.

Use machines. For smaller, less strenuous tasks, manual handling is sufficient. However, for larger and more demanding tasks, employers should consider the use of mechanical handling equipment. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the recommended maximum weight for manual lifting is 51 pounds, though this limit may vary based on lifting characteristics. Additionally, mechanical handling equipment must be well-maintained, and operators should be properly trained.

Prevent injuries through design. When designing tasks, prioritize material handling considerations. Thoughtful task design can minimize manual lifting issues. From the outset, develop job tasks with material handling in mind – it is easier to set up a pre-job task than to retrofit the area for the job task.

Use a team approach. Employees, engineers, maintenance personnel, managers and production workers should be engaged in brainstorming sessions to generate ideas for injury prevention. Those working in job tasks with manual material handling can be great resources for different solutions to risks. Employers can also consult equipment vendors and ergonomics experts to evaluate problematic areas.

Utilize Nationwide resources: Nationwide has several resources that can help customers enhance their safety measures.

  • Enhanced Loss Analysis tool (ELA): Identify where injury losses are occurring most frequently for your clients. This can help tailor loss control strategies and resources that meet the specific needs of their operations. You can access ELA on Agent Center at the Loss Activity link under the Billing and Claims tab. You can learn more about ELA’s features in this video.

Getting buy-in from employees

To successfully implement material-handling safety measures, employers should secure buy-in from employees and leadership. Involving employees helps create a feeling of belonging and engagement in the workplace while increasing employee morale. In turn, high morale can reduce employee injuries. Therefore, employers should seek workers’ input on changes that can make their tasks safer.

Employers should also demonstrate a commitment to creating a safe work environment by standing behind initiatives to protect employees. By participating in the claims process and promoting proactive safety measures, they can help reduce negative outcomes from injuries for employees.


Preventing material handling injuries is crucial for the well-being of workers and the efficiency of business operations. Employers must carefully assess the tasks performed, implement ergonomic practices and engage employees to create a culture of safety. Additionally, insurance agents should recognize the value of safety measures in reducing insurance costs and minimizing losses. Together, these efforts can lead to a safer and more productive workplace.