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Back Pain - Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is a careful examination of what could cause harm to people in the workplace.

Risk assessment is a five stage process and involves:

  • looking for the risks (hazards) ;
  • deciding who might be harmed and how;
  • evaluating the risks and deciding whether the existing precautions are adequate or whether more should be done;
  • recording your findings and telling your employees about them; and
  • reviewing your assessment and revising it if necessary, for example:
    • if the work changes significantly;
    • if there is an accident; or
    • when someone returns to work after sickness or injury, or suffers a change in their health, that could affect or be affected by their work.

General advice on how to carry out a risk assessment is contained in Five steps to risk assessment [664KB]


Risk assessment aids, tools and checklists

A number of risk assessment aids, tools or checklists have been developed that will help you assess the risks from some of the manual handling activities that your workers may carry out:

The Body mapping tool can be used to collect some basic statistical information from your employees on pain experienced during working. It draws on direct experience of employees themselves and it helps develop an understanding of the shared risk-factors in the work they do.

If your employees are carrying out manual labour then you will need to consider a risk assessment tool that assesses the risks of manual handling. HSE have also produced the Manual Handling Assessment Chart (MAC), which can be used to help identify high-risk tasks. The MAC does not comprise a full risk assessment, as some aspects, such as pushing and pulling, are not covered. For further information consult HSE (Manual Handling Assessment Chart (MAC)).

There is no such thing as a completely ‘safe’ manual handling operation. But working within the following guidelines lifting and lowering quick reference will cut the risk and reduce the need for a more detailed assessment.

If your employees work with computers then you will need to perform a Display Screen Equipment (DSE) risk assessment VDU workstation checklist [277KB] .

If your employees’ work duties involve repetitive or forceful actions, twisting, pushing, pulling, lifting, reaching movements or poor posture, they may be at risk of upper limb disorders (ULDs) and back pain and therefore you will need to carry out a ULD risk assessment.

The filter [120KB] and risk assessment worksheets [50KB] featured in the guidance booklet Upper limb disorders in the workplace can be used as an aid to risk assessment.

They are intended to help employers identify the potential risks and possible ways to reduce them.

Download the HSE ULD RA Checklist [885KB]


Manual handling risk assessments and specific tools

Things to remember about manual handling risk assessments:

  • Risk assessments are not an end in themselves they are a structured approach to analysing risk and should point the way to practical solutions!
  • A risk assessment should cover all standard operations, including cleaning and maintenance activities. It should reflect how the work is actually done.
  • The main areas to focus on are the task, load, working environment and individual capability.

Once the risk assessment is completed

You should now review ways in which to eliminate or reduce the risk of employees developing back injury in your workplace.

This will often involve redesigning the task (i.e. to reduce the amount of manual handling or exposure to the risks) and may involve the introduction of mechanical lifting aids that can support the weight of the load and therefore potentially reduce the risk of back injury.

There are a number of different companies that produce manual handling lifting aids to reduce the manual handling risks to the employee and therefore reduce the risk of developing back pain.

The free leaflet Are you making the best use of lifting and handling aids [541KB] provides information of some of the different aids available. However this list is not exhaustive and there are a number of different aids available for a variety of different work processes.

The guidance on the Manual Handling Regulations contains a risk assessment filter to help you screen out low risk manual handling activities.

The filter allows you to identify those manual handling tasks that may be categorised as hazardous and pose a risk of injury. As a result a more detailed risk assessment is required.

Application of the filter guidelines will provide a reasonable level of protection to around 95% of working men and women. However, the guidelines should not be regarded as safe weight limits for lifting.

There is no threshold below which manual handling operations may be regarded as 'safe'. Even operations lying within the boundary mapped out by the guidelines should be avoided or made less demanding wherever it is reasonably practicable to do so.

You will find more information on the risk assessment filter guidelines in the HSE free publication Getting to Grips with Manual Handling: A short Guide [435KB] or the priced publication Manual Handling: Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 Guidance on Regulations.

Industry specific guidance

HSE have also produced guidance specific to certain industries or activities on reducing the risks of back pain.


Other risk factors

Research has shown that there are other risk factors that can affect an employee’s physical health.

Within the work setting, examples of these other risk factors are:

  • high workloads,
  • tight deadlines,
  • lack of control of the work and working methods,
  • working relationships with supervisors and colleagues.

These risk factors can lead not only to stress but also to back pain. For example, stress related changes in the body, such as increased muscle tension, could make employees more susceptible to back pain, or changes in behaviour such as not taking breaks to try to cope with deadlines.

These other risk factors are also known as psychosocial risk factors. Psychosocial risk factors are about the interaction between a person and their social or work environment and the influences on their behaviour.

You may also like to look at HSE’s web pages on tackling work related stress and the Management Standards. The management standards give advice on issues like work load and patterns.

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