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Letter of the Law: How Much Weight Is Too Much to Lift?

By Cheryl Brennan

There is no specific Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) rule that tells us how much is too much to lift. There are, however, specific guidelines that exist.

Here are the numbers to key in on: 71 pounds, according to the American College of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH); 50 pounds, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH); and 35 pounds,JUL13LetterofLawLifting according to NIOSH, if the lift involves a person. These are the maximum weights a person should attempt to lift—and only under ideal conditions.

Ideal conditions
Ideal conditions are met when all of the following are true:

  • The lift is held close to the body and is between the knees and shoulder height.
  • The object has handles or something adequate to effectively grasp.
  • The “load” is not likely to shift.

Any lift done under less than these ideal conditions puts an employee at high risk of causing injury. Possible injuries include cumulative micro-tears to soft tissues, acute sprains or strains, and bulging or ruptured discs. For cities, millions of dollars in claims are paid out each year due to injuries that are caused or aggravated by manual handling of objects and people.

Federal OSHA allows for state jurisdiction and state plans using the federal act as a minimum guideline. Minnesota did create such a state plan under Minnesota Statutes, section182.65, and its citation authority and legislative purpose is essentially the same as found in the federal language. The statute states:

  • Each employer shall furnish to each of its employees conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious injury or harm to its employees (subdivision 2).
  • Each employer shall comply with occupational safety and health standards or rules promulgated pursuant to this chapter (subdivision 3).

In Minnesota, ergonomic risks would be cited under this “general duty” clause.

Risky areas
For several years, League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) consultants have been focusing on ergonomic injuries in public works. The consultants completed studies that show that “manhandling” objects, such as trash barrels and manhole covers, are very high risk when not using a tool other than a pick axe. They are nearly finished with a statewide study of the kinds of jobs public works employees do and how they do them. The consultants have offered recommendations to decrease public works employees’ overall exposure to acute and cumulative trauma injuries.

Another area of real concern is the sprains, strains, and soft tissue injuries caused by manual handling of people (victims, patients, people in custody). The number of medical assist calls is rising 3.3 percent each year.

Minnesota OSHA is currently focusing on safe patient handling and movement in health care settings. “We are aware that patient handling injuries to public safety employees are high,” says Breca Tschida, an industrial hygienist and ergonomics specialist with Minnesota OSHA Consultation. Minnesota OSHA does have a safe patient handling and movement standard (Minnesota Statutes, section 182.6553), but at this time it only applies to health care workers in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care settings. That includes municipal facilities.

LMCIT is also concerned about the patient handling injuries to public safety employees. “Some of these injuries are career ending,” Says Rob Boe, LMCIT Public Safety Coordinator.

There are tools available to assist with lifts and transfers of people, but the culture with police and fire is entrenched against lift devices. These people will go into harm’s way to help someone else in need. But they put themselves in more danger than necessary, and that has to change. The old myth of lift with your legs and maintain a straight back is just that—a myth.

Minimize the risk
To minimize employees’ risk, cities should:

  • Evaluate the work environment and determine those tasks that require more than a 50- to 71-pound lift under less than ideal conditions.
  • Purchase or fabricate equipment to reduce the overall risk for manual handling of people and objects.
  • Address the needed culture change in police and fire.
  • Start working now to budget for equipment. Proper lifting equipment is the most effective (and over time, the most cost-effective) solution to this manual handling risk exposure.

Cheryl Brennan is loss control field service manager with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust.
Contact: cbrennan@lmc.org or (651) 215-4079.


Read the July-August 2013 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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