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Material Handling Safety Basics

 Modern material handling safety basics can involve a diverse array of operations across different industries and organizations. It may involve anything from stacking pallets to moving drums to hoisting several tons of steel with a crane.

Handling materials safely means more than having workers going home at the end of their shift. Good material handling can save time, save money, and make the workplace more efficient. [1]

It is important to note that in the United States, the most frequently cited cause of worker injuries that involve material handling describe bulk and weight as major contributing factors.

Basic Material Handling Safety Tips

Safe material handling involves the creation of a culture that is focused on safety. As the foundation of such a culture, these safety tips should be consistently and accurately communicated to workers who are involved in the movement of materials. When these safety tips are relayed, workplace incidents involving an injury can be reduced. [2]

  • Lifting materials from the floor or from a seated position should be avoided whenever possible.
  • Sudden movements or jerky movements should not be used when moving materials.
  • Material handling must never occur when there is an obstacle that required a load to be lifted over it.
  • Lifts should only be performed in areas where there is adequate space, lighting, and footing available.

There is a component of fitness which must be included for handling materials. Heavy materials that are beyond the lifting capability of a single worker should always take advantage of a team lift or team movement option. That includes lifting the heavy item onto a slide, chute, or conveyor.

There are no OSHA statutes in the United States which set a limit on how much a single person may lift or carry. [3] At the same time, however, there are requirements to provide employees with work areas that are free from recognized hazards that can cause a serious injury or death.

For that reason, anything above 50 pounds should be considered a team lift. Certain loads can be pushed or pulled because the equipment being used limits the forces of weight placed on the employee. Even then, however, a back injury may result if smart lifting practices are not being followed.

Practices to Follow When Handling Materials

Non-slip soled footwear should always be used for material handling responsibilities. This will ensure proper footing is available to the worker at all times. There should be no obstructions in the path of the worker, no trip hazards, and gloves should be worn whenever possible to provide proper grip.

Certain items should be made available whenever materials must be manually moved. This includes forearm protection, eye protection, and foot protection with steel-toed safety boots or shoes. Metatarsal guards made of metal or fiber may also be necessary to protect the instep area from a compression incident.

For team lifts, communication is essential to proper materials handling.

Certain materials may be deemed or marked as being hazardous. Specific handling instructions must be made available to workers, as well as personal protective equipment stations, MSDS sheets, and other specific safety materials to improve worker safety.

If these practices are not followed, the risks of an employee injury may rise. Back injuries are the most common form of injury related to materials handling, but they account for 43% of the total reported injuries.

  • 30% of the injuries related to materials handling incidents are to the shoulder.
  • 22% of the injuries are to the elbow.
  • 13% of the injuries involve the hand or the wrist. [4]

Workers have best practices to follow as well when moving, stacking, or storing. A load should always be centered to minimize the potential of a load falling. Transport equipment will have a maximum weight load that must never be exceeded. All loads should be transported in the lowest possible position. Stacked loads should be piled and cross-tiered whenever practical or possible.

Avoiding Material Handling Incidents During Storage

Many of the safety tips for material handling involve the lift or transport of items. Storage hazards are often overlooked, ignored, or not considered, but without proper storage, material handling incidents can be just as dangerous as lifting or transporting incidents.

The height and weight of each material must be considered when evaluating a storage area. The condition of the containers must be evaluated when materials are being piled or staked. These additional tips can help to create a safer storage area as well.

  • A storage area should always be free of accumulated materials. Not only can an accumulation of materials be a fire, trip, or explosion risk, they can also encourage pests to take up residence in the storage area.
  • Placed materials should be a minimum of 6 feet from hoist ways and floor openings. They should be a minimum of 10 feet from exterior walls when a building is under construction.
  • Lifelines and safety belts must be provided to workers who work in and around tanks, hoppers, or silos.
  • Non-compatible materials must always be separated.

Whenever possible, materials should be stored and staged close to the location where they will be used. They should be off the ground, at waist height whenever possible, and twisting or bending motions should be eliminated whenever possible to avoid worker injuries. [5]

Because material handling can be strenuous exercise, employers should encourage their workers to warm-up before work, just as one would warm-up before a workout. Stretch the muscles that will be performing motions for a few minutes before full exertion occurs. Warm-up training programs, exercise therapists, and ergonomists can help create and monitor worker routines.

With a quality training program that encourages proper techniques for bending, carrying, and lifting, the material handling safety basics can be met.

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[1] Chao, Elaine L. and Henshaw, John L. “Materials Handling and Storage.” United States Department of Labor.

[2]Materials Handling.” Safety and Health Magazine. July 1, 2012.

[3] Galassi, Thomas. “Letter to Rosemary Stewart.” Corrected May 4, 2015. Osha.gov.

[4] Davis, George. “Tips for Team Lifting.” Safety Services Company. January 22, 2008.

[5]Strains, Sprains, and Material Handling Safety Tips for Employers.” Aliiance.