The fact that similar operations involving heavy equipment have been carried out many times without injury does not demonstrate that risks are at the lowest practicable level. To avoid a breach of regulation 4 of the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992, a proper risk assessment has to be undertaken based upon the factors relevant to the risks involved in the particular operation. So held the Court of Appeal in the recent case of Parr v Gravatom Engineering Systems Ltd.
The claimant employee was involved in moving four pieces of heavy machinery a distance of between 50 and 70 feet. Three of the machines weighed approximately three imperial tons and were moved by a system of skates. Three to four men were involved in moving the machinery with the claimant, a 51-year-old man, and one other employee pushing the machinery from the back for a period of several hours. The claiment sustained a back injury and brought a claim against his employer in negligence and for breach of the statutory duty under regulation 4.
In essence regulation 4 provides that:
“4 (1) Each employer shall -
(b) where it is not reasonably practicable to avoid the need for his employees to undertake manual handling operations at work which involve a risk of their being injured -
(i) make a suitable and sufficient assessment of all such manual handling operations … having regard to the factors … specified in … Schedule 1 to these Regulations and considering the questions … specified in …. Column 2 of that Schedule,
(ii) take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of injury to those employees arising out of their undertaking any such manual handling operations to the lowest level reasonably practicable.”
The factors and questions referred to above include: the employer having regard to the tasks and the loads involved; the working environment and individual capacity; whether the load is heavy; whether the task involves excessive pushing or pulling; and whether it involves frequent and prolonged physical effort.
The Health and Safety Executive’s published guidance to help employers in performing these statutory duties provides a guideline figure for pushing and pulling operations. For starting or stopping a load it is a force of about 25kg for men and 16kg for women and for keeping the load in motion, forces of 10kg and 7kg for men and women respectively. It advises that operations exceeding the guideline figures by more than a factor of two may represent a serious risk of injury.
In this case, about 140kg of force was required to start the heavier machines moving and about 90kg of force was required to maintain them in motion. The claimant alone was exerting a force of 45kg upwards when pushing the machine and at least 30kg upwards once it was in motion; considerably more than the respective guideline figures.
The judge at first instance found that a detailed risk assessment had been necessary but in fact no risk assessment had been done. Had it been, it would have identified a considerable danger of serious injury which could have been avoided. There was a breach of regulation 4.
Court of Appeal’s decision
On appeal, the Court of Appeal rejected the defendant’s submissions that a suitable and sufficient assessment had been made. The defendant argued that it had considered how the machines could be moved, it had concluded that the safest way was by using skates (which was standard practice) and by using three or four men. It said such an operation had been done many times before and that these considerations were sufficient to show that it had taken appropriate steps to reduce the risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level.
The court accepted the defendant’s proposition that it would not be enough for a claimant to show a breach of the regulation requiring the assessment if the evidence showed the defendant did in fact take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of injury to the lowest level reasonably practicable. However, in this case, the fact that similar operations had been carried out in similar manner before was not enough. The degree of risk involved in any operation varied depending upon a number of factors including the distance involved, the presence or absence of a bend, the length of time for which the physical effort is required and the age and capability of the persons involved. It concluded that it was because of such potentially significant individual factors that the regulations require a detailed risk assessment in many situations.
There were a variety of steps that could have been taken to reduce the risk to the claimant. These included towing the machines by a forklift truck, using specialist contractors who were specially trained, using more personnel, not permitting the same individual to push more than one machine. The defendant had considered none of these. In the circumstances the court upheld the decision that the defendant had not taken appropriates steps to reduce the risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable. It was in breach of regulation 4 and liable in damages for the claimant’s injury.
The decision makes it clear that the assessment of risk when manual handling is being undertaken has to be carried out on a case-by-case basis and upon the factors relevant to the risks involved in the specific case and for the individuals concerned. The fact that similar operations have been carried out many times without injury doesn’t demonstrate that risks are at the lowest practicable level.
So what should a risk assessment include?
Where there is a risk of an employee being injured when undertaking any manual handling operations, consider the following before instructing that the work be carried out.
Does the task involve:
- Holding or manipulating loads at distance from the trunk?
- Twisting the trunk, stooping, reaching upwards?
- Excessive movements of loads especially excessive lifting or lowering, carrying, pushing or pulling?
- The risk of sudden movement of loads?
- Frequent or prolonged physical effort?
- Insufficient rest or recovery periods?
- A rate of work imposed by a process?
Are the loads heavy, bulky or unwieldy, difficult to grasp, unstable or likely to shift, sharp, hot or potentially damaging?
Does the working environment have:
- Space constraints preventing good posture?
- Uneven, slippery or unstable floors or work surfaces?
- Extremes of temperature or humidity?
- Ventilation problems or poor lighting conditions?
Does the job
- Require unusual strength, height etc?
- Create a hazard to pregnant women or employees with health problems?
- Require special information or training for its safe performance?
Is movement or posture hindered by personal protective equipment or by clothing?
If there is high risk or a risk of serious injury, then ideally the risk should be eliminated (for example through use of mechanical lifting devices). If, however, elimination of the risk is not practicable then steps must be taken to reduce the risk to the lowest level that is practicable. This may be through provision of manual handling training, ensuring that clear procedures are in place identifying how the manual handling should be done and how many involved, monitoring and enforcing such procedures and even, taking account of individual circumstances, precluding certain individuals from being involved in the manual handling.