Hazardous manual tasks

Most jobs involve doing some manual tasks. Manual tasks cover many activities, including stacking shelves, working on a conveyor line and entering data into a computer. These include lifting, pushing, pulling or carrying. Some manual tasks are hazardous and may cause musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). These are the most common workplace injuries across Australia.

What is a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD)?

Musculoskeletal disorders are an injury or disease of the musculoskeletal system. The musculoskeletal system is made up of muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues.

MSD may include:

  • Sprains and strains of muscles, ligaments and tendons.
  • Back injuries.
  • Joint and bone injuries or degeneration.
  • Nerve injuries or compression (for example carpal tunnel syndrome).
  • Muscular and vascular disorders as a result of hand-arm vibration.
  • Soft tissue injuries such as hernias.
  • Chronic pain (pain that lasts longer than three months).
  • Acute pain (pain that lasts less than three months).

MSD can happen:

  • Slowly, through gradual wear and tear from repetitive or continuous movements, including static body positions
  • Suddenly, through strenuous activity or unexpected movements – for example, handling a load that shifts position.

Injuries can also occur due to a combination of the above mechanisms.

What is a hazardous manual task? 

A hazardous manual task is a task requiring a person to lift, lower, push, pull, carry or otherwise move, hold or restrain any person, animal or thing involving one or more of the following: 

  • Repetitive movement 
  • Repetitive or sustained force 
  • High or sudden force 
  • Sustained or awkward postures 
  • Exposure to vibration. 

These hazards directly stress the body and can lead to an injury. 

WHS duties

Everyone in the workplace has a role in managing the risk of hazardous manual tasks. These duties are set out in the WHS Act and WHS Regulations. 

For Businesses/ PCBU / Mine Operator

As a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you must keep workers and workplaces safe from the risks of hazardous manual handling. Following a four-step risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws. 

Consulting workers

You must consult with workers who are affected, or likely to be affected, by the manual task. If your workers have a health and safety representative, you must involve that representative. It is important to consult your workers as early as possible when planning to:

  • Introduce new tasks or change existing tasks
  • Select new equipment
  • Refurbish, renovate or redesign existing workplaces
  • Carry out work in new environments.

Consultation should include encouraging workers to share their knowledge and experience of techniques and technologies which may better manage risks. You should also encourage your workers to report problems with manual tasks and signs of discomfort immediately to manage risks before an injury occurs.

Information, training, instruction and supervision

Workers must be trained and have the appropriate skills to safely carry out a particular task. Training should be provided to workers by a competent person and information on:

  • Manual task risk management, including the hazards associated with hazardous manual tasks
  • Specific manual task risks and the measures in place to control them
  • How to perform manual tasks safely, including the use of mechanical aids, tools, equipment and safe work procedures
  • How to report a problem or maintenance issue

WorkSafe has developed a sample training package that can be adapted and modified for your workplace. You should keep records of induction and training given to your workers. See PCBU duties for more information on these duties.

For workers

As a worker, you must take reasonable care for your health and safety and not adversely affect the health and safety of others.

You must comply with reasonable instructions and cooperate with reasonable health and safety policies or procedures.

If personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided, you must use or wear it following the information, instruction, and training provided.

Tell your manager or Health and Safety Representative (HSR) if you are concerned about your manual tasks at work. See Workers and others duties for more information on these duties. 

Managing the risk

There are a range of techniques you can use to eliminate or minimise the risks at your work. Eliminating the risk is the most effective control measure. If this is not practicable, then minimise the risk as far as possible.

The best way to manage hazardous manual task risks is to follow a systematic risk management process:

  • Identifying hazardous manual tasks 
  • Assessing the risks
  • Implementing control measures to eliminate or minimise risks and
  • Regularly reviewing control measures to ensure they remain effective. 

You must do these things in consultation with your workers and any Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) if you have them.

Further guidance on the risk management process is available in the Code of practice: How to manage work health and safety risks  and Code of practice: Hazardous Manual Tasks

Step 1- Identify hazards

The first step in risk management is identifying tasks that can cause MSDs. Hazards that arise from manual tasks generally involve interaction between a worker and:

  • The work tasks and how they are performed
  • The tools, equipment, and objects handled
  • The physical work environment.

Hazards may be identified by looking at the workplace and how work is carried out. It is also useful to talk to workers, manufacturers, suppliers and health and safety specialists and review relevant information, records and incident reports.

Characteristics of hazardous manual tasks

  • Repetitive force – using force repeatedly over a period of time
  • Sustained force – occurs when force is applied continually over a period of time
  • High force – occurs when increased muscle effort is required in response to a task. It may be from the back, arm or leg muscles or by the hands and fingers.
  • Sudden force – jerky or unexpected movements while handling an item or load. These movements are particularly hazardous because the body must suddenly adapt to the changing force.
  • Repetitive movement – using the same parts of the body to repeat similar movements over a period of time.
  • Sustained posture – where part of or the whole body is kept in the same position for a prolonged period.
  • Awkward posture – where any part of the body is in an uncomfortable or unnatural position.
  • Whole body vibration occurs when vibration is transmitted through the whole body, usually via a supporting surface, such as a seat or the floor in heavy vehicles or machinery. This may result in lower back pain, degeneration of the lumbar vertebrae and disc herniation.
  • Hand–arm vibration occurs when vibration is transferred through a vibrating tool, steering wheel or controls in heavy machinery to the hand and arm. This can disrupt blood circulation in the hand and forearm and damage nerves and tendons.

Step 2 - Assess the risk

You should conduct a risk assessment, in consultation with workers, for any manual tasks you have identified as hazardous unless the risk is well known and you know how to control it.

Assessing the risk will help you determine what is reasonably practicable to control it. To assess the risk of harm, you need to consider the workers affected and the duration, frequency and severity of their exposure to the hazard.

  • Duration – How long is the worker exposed to the hazards or risks?
  • Frequency – How often is the worker exposed to the hazards or risks?
  • Severity – How severe are the hazards and the workers' exposures?

Consider workers who may be more at risk of developing an MSD. For example, an inexperienced worker or worker with a previous injury. For a manual tasks risk assessment template see Appendix 6 in the Hazardous manual tasks code of practice.

Step 3 - Control risks

Look at the assessed risks and decide what needs to be done to eliminate or reduce the risks and how quickly these control measures need to be implemented. The hierarchy of control guides you to choose a solution that most effectively eliminates or minimise the risk. There are different types of control strategies to eliminate or reduce the risks. These are listed below in order of their effectiveness.  Quite often, a range of controls is needed to effectively control the risk.


You must always aim to eliminate the risk. Examples include:

  • Automate the manual task (e.g. by using robotics).
  • Deliver goods directly to the point of use to eliminate multiple handling.


Minimise the risk by substituting or replacing a hazard or hazardous work practice with something that gives rise to a lesser risk. Examples include:

  • Replace heavy items with lighter, smaller or easier to handle items; be aware of the risk of increased repetition.
  • Replace hand tools with power tools to reduce the level of force required to do the task.
  • Coordinate with suppliers to replace packaging with packaging designed to allow goods to be handled using powered plant.
  • Handle items mechanically to reduce the risk to the worker.

If eliminating the hazards and associated risks is not reasonably practicable, you must minimise the risk by one or more of the following:


Minimise the risk by isolating or separating the hazard or hazardous work practice from anyone exposed. Examples include:

  • Isolate vibrating machinery from the user.
  • Enclose the machinery or the personnel, creating an isolating barrier between the hazard and the person at risk.
  • Redesign the workplace to minimise distractions from the task performed.


Engineering controls are physical control measures to minimise risk. Control measures should be aimed at eliminating or minimising the frequency, magnitude and duration of movements, forces and postures by changing:

  • the work area
  • tool
  • load
  • environment
  • method of handling

For example:

  • Use mechanical lifting aids and trolleys
  • Use suitable mopping and vacuuming equipment
  • Design the workplace to minimise the need to lift and move things
  • Provide workstations that are height adjustable


If risk remains, it must be minimised by implementing administrative controls so far as is reasonably practicable.

  • Rotate workers between different tasks.
  • Develop lifting procedures including what devices should be used, how many workers are required to operate them and what training those workers need.

Personal protective equipment

Any remaining risk must be minimised with suitable personal protective equipment (PPE).

  • Heat-resistant gloves for handling hot items.
  • Shock-absorbent shoes for work on hard concrete floors.

Administrative control measures and PPE do not control the hazard at the source. They rely on human behaviour and supervision and, used on their own, tend to be the least effective in minimising risks.

The most cost-effective way to manage hazards is with good work design. Try to design the work without hazardous manual tasks - for instance automating systems to eliminate the need for workers to carry loads.  Further examples of control measures can be found in Hazardous manual tasks code of practice.

Step 4- Review control measures

The last step of the risk management process is to review the effectiveness of the implemented control measures to check they are working as planned. A control measure must be changed or replaced if it is not working well.  Common review methods include workplace inspection, consultation, testing and analysing records and data. 

Further guidance on the risk management process and the hierarchy of control measures is in the Hazardous manual tasks code of practice.

After an incident

After an incident, it’s important to:

  • Determine what caused the incident
  • Make changes to prevent further incidents
  • Support the worker with rehabilitation and return to work. 


Following an incident, it is essential to investigate to identify and control contributing risk factors, preventing future incidents. The investigation should include the injured worker, supervisor/ manager and health and safety representative (if they exist). 

The injured worker must be consulted so that there is a clear understanding of the mechanism of injury. The injured worker’s perspective of what may have led to the problem usually provides vital clues as to what went wrong and why. They often also have appropriate ideas about what controls may be implemented to reduce the risk of re-injury.

During the investigation, the investigators must look for causes, not blame. Systems fail for many reasons, and the people involved are often not the cause of the incident.

Investigations should:

  • Be a team approach (safety rep, line manager/supervisor, safety personnel, person/s with relevant knowledge).
  • Look for causes, not blame.
  • Aim to establish what should have happened compared to what happened.
  • Determine a summary of the incident and recommendations for controls. 
  • Aim to prevent recurrence.

Use this template for guidance Manual tasks incident investigation

Make changes

Inspect the workplace for hazards, assess the risk and make changes to reduce the risk of future incidents.

Injury management 

Immediate treatment of an injury and early return to appropriate work tasks reduce the severity and length of recovery. Further information about injury management and work rehabilitation can be found through WorkCover WA. 

Guidance for high risk industries


Injuries from performing manual tasks at work are a significant burden for the Western Australian Mining Industry. Reducing the extent and severity of such injuries is beneficial to all industry stakeholders. Learn more


Body-stressing injuries from manual tasks are the highest cause of serious and severe injuries in manufacturing. Two sub-sectors at high risk of manual task injuries in WA include food manufacturing and metal product manufacturing. Learn more.

Retail and wholesale

Body-stressing injuries resulting from manual tasks are the highest cause of injury in retail and wholesale industries. Find out how to manage the risks Learn more.

Food service

Injuries from hazardous manual tasks are the highest cause of lost time injury to workers in the food service industry. Find out how to manage the risks Learn more.


Workers in the road transport sub-sector are at high risk of obtaining body-stressing injuries. Find out how to manage the risks Learn more.

Health care and social services

Community service workers play an important role in assisting others. Hazardous manual tasks are the primary cause of injury in the healthcare and social assistance sector, with occupations such as nurses and carers at greatest risk. The ‘Manual task guide for carers’ provides more detailed information about the risks and how to manage the risk associated with handling people. Learn more.


Manual task injuries remain one of the construction industry's largest single causes of injury. WorkSafe has developed a series of fact sheets for the construction industry to highlight the risks and provide solutions to help prevent injury. Fact sheets have been developed for topics generic across all construction work and specific materials for plumbers and electriciansLearn more. 

Office Ergonomics

Computer use is considered a manual task. Computer work can expose workers to prolonged awkward postures, sustained postures and repetitive movement. This information will give you tips about how to set up your office Learn more. 

Standards and compliance


Further Information

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