Industry must tackle its first-lift/last-lift manual handling blind spot

Posted on 18 Jun 2024 by The Manufacturer

Industry has come a long way on its manual handling journey, but critical blind spots that threaten the welfare of the UK’s workforce remain in place, says Richard Cutler, engineering manager at Alwayse Engineering.

One in three accidents at work are caused by manual handling, according to trade union Unison, with 300,000 people in the UK suffering from back pain due to manual handling accidents every year.

What’s more, the Health and Safety Executive says that 1.6 million working days are lost every year due to manual handling injuries.

While these are sobering numbers, the real story lies not in dry statistics but in the toll that manual handling injuries are taking on employees. Damage to the back, neck or spine can lead to extreme pain, temporary incapacity or permanent injury.

Industry has been quick to respond by identifying and fixing the major causes of manual handling injuries in its operations. It is not uncommon now to see robots for end-of-line work, forklifts and scissor lifts, conveyor systems and overhead cranes for the transfer of components and equipment around a facility.

Things are much improved, but there remains a critical ‘blind spot’ in many industrial and manufacturing plants that continues to leave employers and employees exposed.

That blind spot would be what we call the ‘first lift’ or ‘last lift’ of a heavy component, tool or piece of equipment from a transporter, such as a forklift, onto a storage solution, such as racking, or vice versa.

For example, an injection mould, press or progression tooling, welding, drilling and boring jigs, heavy batteries and gearboxes or CNC tooling will often be heavier than the recommended maximum manual lifting weight of 25kg or 55lb. Moving this sort of equipment around a facility will typically require lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing and pulling by either an employee or by equipment such as a forklift.

Very often this equipment is housed in a storeroom – usually a forgotten part of a facility that is cramped and full of storage racking. This overlooked part of a plant can be an area of acute danger for employees. During the manual handling process of moving the equipment from the storeroom racking, it can be difficult to keep the spine upright and avoid the twisting, bending and reaching that can cause musculoskeletal injuries.

Even if you wanted to automate the lifting of a mould from racking onto a scissor lift, for example, the return on investment for such an outlay would make the payback a matter of multiple years – well beyond normal industrial investment criteria.

Employers are therefore in a bind. The Manual Handling Operations Regulations require an employer to carry out a risk assessment on all manual handling tasks that pose an injury risk and, in turn, mitigate that risk. However, the potential solutions are often costly and unsuitable for confined spaces such as storerooms; robots, for example, require a considerable safety zone working area that would dramatically reduce storage capacity.

Alwayse Engineering
The ball transfer unit provides a roll-on, roll-off capability ideal for confined spaces

What is required is a low-cost, easily installed solution for this first-lift and last-lift problem. The answer may lie in the use of omnidirectional ball transfer units, expertly designed to facilitate the movement of tools and other equipment around a storage facility and onto a transporter. They can be installed in existing racking and require neither power nor software, making them quick to implement.

The ball transfer unit provides a roll-on, roll-off capability ideal for confined spaces or where fixed tracks or suspended cables are either impractical or pose risks if not properly maintained and where there is potential for workers to come into contact with them.

Safety is inherent in the design with components moving slowly over the ball transfer units at the speed designated by the worker and his or her comfort levels, not the speed designated by the automation system.

Additional safety features such as J-plates can be incorporated to prevent equipment or components housed on the racking from accidentally rolling off. They are a safe and, crucially, movable alternative to fixed guards and can be removed completely in the event of reconfiguration or relocation of the racking.

In operation, the employee merely moves the scissor lift or other transporter to within range of the racking, lowers the J-plate and gently pushes the equipment onto the lift or back onto the racking with no lifting, twisting or bending.

Considerable loads, well beyond the normal manual handling capabilities of a worker, can be moved quickly and easily with minimal risk.

While industry has made enormous strides in its identification and mitigation of manual handling risk, these critical blind spots remain, often in overlooked parts of a facility that are not subject to the same scrutiny as other areas of a plant. Low-cost, effective solutions, are available and, for both employees and employers, it is important that these solutions are given an opportunity to reduce injury risk even further.

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