Safe manual handling: Best practices for builders merchant staff

Within a single shift at your builders merchant, your workers are exposed to numerous manual handling hazards – from lifting timber to pushing pallet trucks and stacking high shelves. Without correct posture and lifting techniques, employees risk one-off injuries and debilitating long-term musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Manual handling risks and responsibilities 

Manual handling is a broad-brush term for any action that involves lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, or moving objects. It’s a core component of on-the-job safety and the UK’s number two cause of non-fatal workplace accidents. 

Last year, 17% of all workplace injuries involved handling, lifting, or carrying, and businesses lost 6.6 million working days to job-related MSDs in 2022/23. Associated health problems include: 

  • Back, neck, and shoulder injuries
  • Joint problems
  • Chronic pain 
  • Arm and leg injuries
  • Muscle fatigue and weakness 
  • Cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs)

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to actively reduce manual handling risks within your branches to the ‘lowest level reasonably practicable’. This means identifying hazards and taking practical, feasible steps to ensure a safe working environment. 

Fortunately, you can easily control manual handling-related health problems, employee absence, and productivity issues with tailored training and simple safety strategies. This article gets you started. 

Three steps to manual handling safety 

Manual handling risks can be minimised with a three-step ‘Avoid, Assess, Reduce’ methodology. This approach helps you pinpoint the safest solution for any task that might require manual handling. 

1. Avoid 

Before transporting any load using physical means, ensure it can’t be moved mechanically. The goal is to avoid manual handling altogether. Start with these questions:  

  • Does the load genuinely need to be moved? 
  • Can it be shifted without hands-on contact? 
  • Could mechanical and automated handling aids be used? 

2. Assess 

If manual handling is unavoidable, carry out a comprehensive risk assessment. Examine the job from start to finish, ticking off the following safety considerations:  

  • The task – Has it been clearly defined and demonstrated? What type of physical movement does it demand? 
  • The load – Is it heavy, unwieldy, or hard to manoeuvre?  
  • The working environment – Are there blind spots, trip hazards, or restricted access areas? 
  • Individual capacity – Do your employees have existing health and/or physical limitations? 
  • Organisation of the activity – Can the effort be shared or staggered? 
  • Pace – Can the task be completed safely and carefully within the available time?  
  • Frequency – Does the operation involve repetitive actions? How often does it need to occur? 
  • Duration – Could the job cause injury or strain over a sustained period?

3. Reduce and control 

Minimise injury risks with safe working practices and mechanical aids. These key questions will help create an informed plan for every job: 

  • Can manually operated handling aids be used? If so, do your workers know how to use them effectively?  
  • Could the load be modified or broken down into smaller bundles? 
  • Can the load be pushed rather than pulled? 
  • Could the environment be changed to cut risks? This might mean shortening distances, augmenting lighting, or improving floor surfaces. 
  • Do workers need PPE to supplement your other controls – for example, head protection, gloves, or safety shoes? 
  • Have staff been trained on understanding manual handling risks, using aids, safe handling and lifting methods, dynamic assessment of working environments, activity risk assessments, and safe systems of work?

Assess risks using the TILE technique

The TILE acronym helps you examine manual handling hazards from all perspectives: Task, Load, Individual, and Environment. Use it as part of your risk assessment activity. 


  • Review the type of manual handling required and how it could influence the activity. For example, pushing, pulling, or lifting could lead to repetitive or strenuous movements or uneven weight distribution. 
  • Where possible, lifting should be supported or replaced by manual handling aids, such as a sack truck for moving bulky, awkward items like bags of cement or sand. 
  • When lifting is necessary, train your team to use good posture and avoid twisting, pushing, and pulling motions.


  • Consider each employee’s capabilities. Do they have a pre-existing health condition or disability? Are they pregnant? If they’re not capable of moving the load, always find an alternative solution. 
  • Is the worker trained in safe manual handling techniques? 
  • Do they have appropriate clothing and PPE? 


  • How does the load’s size, weight, or shape affect task safety?  Can it be easily gripped and manoeuvred? Will it shift in transit? 
  • Assess if the load contains hazardous materials or sharp surfaces.
  • If the item requires two people to move, ensure both colleagues lift at the same time. Allocate one individual to control the lift and instruct the other person.


  • Determine how the surrounding area could influence the task. For example, uneven surfaces or insufficient lighting in your yard could cause slips and trips. Wet weather conditions could also make it hard to grip the load.
  • Make sure the route taken during the task is clear of hazards – including pedestrians and vehicles. 
  • Schedule manual handling activities to avoid peak trade times. 

Tackle your toughest safety challenges with Opus 

Proper manual handling practice is only a small part of builders merchant compliance. We’ll help you get every element right. 

Chat through your health and safety strategy with an Opus consultant on 0330 043 4015 or email