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The increasing risk of manual handling injuries for warehouse workers

Ross Whalley and Poppy Barnett discuss the increased risk to warehouse workers and online pickers

Posted on 15 February 2021

Ross Whalley and Poppy Barnett discuss the increased risk to warehouse workers, online pickers and supermarket delivery order workers posed by the extra workload created as retail has moved away from the High Street to online shopping.

As retail moves to more digital means, more and more people are shopping online instead of battling the high streets.

Even in normal times, the period before and after Christmas is a busy time for those working in warehouses and online pickers. On top of the demand for everyday products, there is an increase in retail activity as people buy gifts, decorations and food for their seasonal celebrations, followed by those looking for a bargain in the January sales or returning items.

This year, the global pandemic has seen much of this business move online with lockdowns encouraging shoppers to stay at home and non-essential shops forced to close after Christmas.

Whilst the increased digital sales may be welcomed by large online retail companies, they can paint a grimmer picture for those warehouse workers and online pickers helping to meet the demand.

Inevitably, manual handling poses risks to warehouse workers of a variety of injuries such as hernias, back problems and upper limb symptoms. Certainly, with more orders and increased logistical requirements, the risk of physical (and psychological) injury to warehouse workers is heightened. 

Health and Safety Guidance

The Health and Safety Executive - the UK’s regulatory body for workplace health and safety - set basic guidance for employers to follow to reduce the risk of manual handling injuries to their workers. Their guidance echoes the statutory regulations of the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (as amended).  

Employers are advised to:

  • Avoid hazardous manual handling operations so far as is reasonably practicable
  • Assess any hazardous manual handling operations that cannot be avoided
  • Reduce the risk of injury so far as is reasonably practicable

The manual handling operations of many warehouse workers are simply unavoidable, so employers need to assess the risk posed to employees. Considerations for employers should include the weight of the load, how it is handled, who is handling it, whether mechanical equipment can assist and whether the operations needs more than one worker. They also need to train their workers on safe handling techniques and ensure the working environment is safe and not cramped.

Luke’s Story

Leigh Day acted for Luke a 59-year-old warehouse manager. The warehouse in which he worked was frequently cramped due to over-stocking.  As his role was to organise the stock safely, he had reported the cramped conditions to senior management several times.

One morning whilst working alone, a delivery arrived and he was tasked with storing it. He used a forklift truck to move a pallet, and, afterwards, noticed that some heavy laminate sheets were stacked unsafely, leaning against a wall. As he went over to inspect them, the sheets fell on to him, knocking and pinning him to the ground. The sheets of laminate weighed 150-200kg each.

Luke suffered a compression fracture to his spine, soft tissue injuries to his groin and arm, and psychological symptoms. He was left with permanent discomfort in the lower back and his career as a warehouse manager was cut short by a couple of years.

Leigh Day brought a claim against his employer, arguing amongst other things, that they had failed to act upon his previous complaints about the cramped warehouse conditions, and that they had failed to ensure the laminate sheets were stored correctly by colleagues.

Luke’s employers denied legal responsibility throughout the duration of the claim, forcing the matter to almost reach Trial. They alleged that Luke was the author of his own misfortune in attempting the task alone. However, the claim was successful, and the team secured £65,000 in compensation without the need for a Trial.

Statistics – manual handling Injuries

Despite the Health & Safety guidance for employers, there remains a concerningly high number of manual-handling related injuries year on year. In 2019/20, the Health and Safety Executive recorded a total of 693,000 self-reported non-fatal injuries, 19 per cent of these were caused by handling, lifting, or carrying, amounting to approximately 131,600 injuries.

These statistics show an increase compared to the year before, in which 116,200 were recorded as being caused by handling, lifting and carrying.

Conclusion

The “death of the high street” had been long lamented by the media prior to the Coronavirus pandemic. The dramatic shift towards internet shopping will most likely be accelerated by the pandemic, particularly in the seasonal shopping periods.

Now more so than ever, employers need to ensure that warehouse workers are adequately protected from the risks and injuries inherent with manual handling. HSE’s figures reporting an increase in manual handling injuries in 2020 provides a stark warning of the increased risk of injuries to warehouse workers as society changes its shopping habits. It is likely that the HSE’s awaited 2020/21 statistics will continue to reflect this worrying trend.

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Ross Whalley

Ross Whalley

Ross Whalley is an associate solicitor in the personal injury department.

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Poppy Barnett October 2019

Poppy Barnett: Trainee in the personal injury department

Poppy is a trainee in the personal injury team in the Manchester office.

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