Best Materials Handling Practices for Preventing Strains and Sprains

The right storage, equipment and lifting techniques can help keep workers injury free.

Aching backs, sprained ligaments and sore muscles are common injuries on jobsites — but they don’t have to be. While one in five construction workers can expect to suffer some kind of musculoskeletal injury during their career, many of these injuries are preventable.

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Workers often get hurt by moving or lifting materials improperly. They may lack the equipment or training needed to minimize manual materials handling. 

As part of its Best Built Plans program, the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) recently developed resources that can help contractors reduce these injuries. The program uses insights gained from in-depth interviews at 12 contracting companies known for their safe materials handling programs.

“One of the common themes that we saw was that they all planned materials handling from the time they bid their project through project completion,” said Eileen Betit, director of CPWR’s Research to Practice program.

Project planning for safe materials handling

CPWR has put together many free online resources on the subject of materials handling for contractors. The Site Planning Tool includes suggestions for every project stage. When bidding a project, for example, contractors should consider:

  • The types and quantities of materials they’ll use
  • When they’ll need those materials
  • The weight of the materials and whether lower-weight options are available
  • Material storage options that could minimize bending and lifting
  • Any lift equipment and/or labor for team lifts that might be required

“If you’re going to need different kinds of storage, equipment to lift the materials, or additional labor because you’re going to be using a team lift, those are things that you should cost out in your bid,” said Betit. “It makes it more challenging if you decide later on that you want to do those things and haven’t worked them out for your budget.”

The Site Planning tool includes pre-set spreadsheets, material weights, storage and lifting options, checklists, toolbox talks and more.

Best materials storage and lifting practices

The Best Built program includes downloadable interactive training resources that supervisors can use to review the correct storage and lifting practices with workers. This can help reduce the risk of sprain, strain and tripping injuries. Those practices include:

  • Plan to have materials delivered close to where they’ll be used to reduce the need to lift or move them.
  • Store materials off the ground so workers will have to bend less.
  • Identify how much materials weigh and set weight limits for lifting materials without help.
  • Provide equipment or people for lifting and moving materials that are over the limit.
  • Follow proper loading procedures and weight limits for lifting equipment such as hand trucks, wheelbarrows, power dollies, power buggies, forklifts, etc.
  • Use good lifting technique. Feet should be shoulder-width apart and slightly staggered. Bend the knees rather than the back. Keep the item to be lifted as close to the body as possible, and move the feet first when turning (don’t twist the back).

Also available are interactive exercises that cover warmups and safe lifting techniques. An animated figure shows the proper positioning and movement for each type of activity.

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The Best Built Plans program is still in the pilot stage; several contracting companies will provide feedback to CPWR as they use and evaluate it. Betit also welcomes input from other contractors who want to try out the program resources and then complete a survey on the Best Built Plans website.

Emphasizing safe materials handling will not only help protect your employee’s health, it will also help protect your bottom line. The Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index (2018) estimates that nearly one-quarter of all costs from disabling injuries at U.S. businesses stemmed from overexertion, including injuries related to lifting, pushing, holding and carrying. According to the Best Built Plans site, a single injury claim of $50,000 could result in an insurance modification rate increase of 15 points, insurance premium increases of $24,000 to $129,600 per year and additional indirect costs such as paying wages for replacement workers.

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

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