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Ergonomics in the Workplace: Material Handling

Hazard Identification

The first element needed when assessing a material handling task is to identify the hazards and analyze the risks involved. This can be done by using tools to help you identify problems. OSHA 300 forms or workers’ compensation claims can be reviewed in order to show past injuries. Checklists can also be used to identify risks. A material handling checklist might include the following factors to be considered:

  • Weight of load being lifted
  • Distance material is moved
  • Object itself – Is it easy to grasp? Does it have handles?
  • Personal Protective Equipment used – Does it fit properly?
  • Adjustability of work surfaces
  • Awkward postures
  • Frequency of lift

By identifying hazards, problems can be resolved and efforts can be directed where they are needed most. Potential problems can also be identified and handled prior to becoming worse. During the assessment step of the ergonomics program, it is important to involve employees. After all, they are one of the beneficiaries of a safe workplace. Obtaining worker input allows for a feeling of importance in the ergonomics process, and enhanced worker motivation. Employees can participate in the hazard analysis step by completing surveys regarding discomfort felt from performing the job. Once the risk factors and hazards have been identified, methods to reduce or eliminate theses risks can be developed. These methods are known as controls. Development of controls is the second element of an ergonomics program.

Development of Controls

Controls can be one of three types; engineering, administrative, or personal protective equipment. Each has its positive and negative points. When choosing an appropriate control for a task, the activity must be analyzed as discussed previously and the problems causing the injury risk can be alleviated using one of the three types of controls.

Engineering Controls

Engineering controls reduce or eliminate hazardous conditions by designing the job to take account for the employee. The design of the job matches it to the employee so the job demands do not pose stress to the worker. Jobs can be redesigned to reduce the physical demands needed while performing the task. Suggested Engineering controls to be used with a material handling task include the following:

  • Reduced weight lifted
  • Decreased distance traveled
  • Addition of handles to boxes
  • Adjustable work surfaces
  • Lifting/Carrying Aids- Hoists, Carts, Conveyors

Engineering controls, while usually more expensive than other controls, are the preferred approach to preventing and controlling injuries due to material handling tasks. These permanent design changes allow for increased worker safety while performing the task.

Administrative Controls

Administrative controls deal with work practices and policies. Changes in job rules and procedures such as rest breaks, or worker rotation schedules are examples of administrative controls. Administrative controls can be helpful as temporary fixes until engineering controls can be established.

Personal Protective Equipment

Wrist supports, back belts, and gloves are all examples of tools that serve to protect employees. These devices may reduce the duration or intensity of exposure to the injury. Administrative controls can be helpful as temporary fixes until engineering controls can be established. NIOSH has concluded that insufficient evidence exists to prove that back belts are effective in preventing injuries while performing manual material handling tasks.


Ultimately, stressful material handling tasks can not be eliminated all together. However, the risks involved can be reduced by applying ergonomics concepts to redesign the work. Redesigning the workplace and or the job itself can result in decreased injury risk to employees, decreased costs to employers, and most importantly, increased worker satisfaction.


Sanders, Mark S. and McCormick, Ernest J. (1993). Human Factors in Engineering and Design (7th ed. ). New York; McGraw – Hill, p. 254-269.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (NIOSH) (1997). Elements of Ergonomics Programs. Cincinnati, OH: NIOSH.

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