Reducing manual handling risks

By - , Build 160

Residential builders are exposed to the risk of manual handling injuries every day. Making changes in process and equipment use can reduce the likelihood of injury, but changes must make business sense.

STRAINS and sprains or musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injuries have long been seen as a problem in residential construction.

Risky business

ACC data for 2009–2013 reveals that MSDs were responsible for more than 40% of all claims for the sector. MSDs are also among the most expensive claims, often requiring medical intervention and a long recuperation.

As residential builders are typically self-employed or work for small building businesses, anything preventing them from working affects income and even the viability of the business.

MSDs are so common that they may become accepted as an inevitable outcome, while people new to the industry may be unaware of cumulative risks or unconcerned.

Measures to reduce MSD risk need to also offer improvements in productivity. Information and guidance on injury prevention, therefore, may have little traction unless shown to be of direct benefit to the business.

Builders surveyed about current practices

In 2014, ACC, supported by Master Builders (MBA) and Certified Builders (NZCB), commissioned Massey University’s Healthy Work Group to identify and document practices builders were taking to reduce MSD risks.

A sample of 61 residential builders from Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland were recruited through the MBA and NZCB. About half were business owners, and the other half were employees. Researchers visited the builders on site and asked about:

  • MSD risk factors
  • what measures they took to address MSDs
  • the success of these measures
  • any problems they encountered
  • how they dealt with the problems.

Most-effective measures identified

The report identified 164 measures under headings relating to activities in the organisation of work, building practices and work equipment. For each measure, there is an indication of how many builders raised it, whether there is research support and researchers’ views on the potential measure to reduce injury risk.

The findings represent the builders’ voices. They reported what was effective, or would be, and have continued with because they have a positive impact on their business.

The dominant issue to emerge was that risk reduction was secondary to saving time, money or materials. The point was consistently made that, in most situations, ideas on preventing harm had to make business sense to be considered.

Measures then rated by feasibility

The 164 measures were then rated by four builders from MBA Northern Region on their feasibility of being implemented by builders (either high, medium or low). Measures that were rated high by the builders as well as high by the researchers are shown in Table 1.

Hopefully, ACC and the building associations will continue to use the report to inform their injury prevention programmes.

Some final thoughts

It is important to note that:

  • no one measure is more important than others – many are required to address handling risks, and not all will have been identified in this study
  • the representation of builders for the whole sector is unknown, and risks may be different between labour-only builders and company owners
  • the most effective strategies are for organisational-level measures, involving expert opinion and engaging all stakeholders
  • for many measures, there are productivity advantages and a reduction in MSD risk.
Table 1
Ways to reduce manual handling injury risk
1. Contract planning and work scheduling  
  • Develop a schedule and determine critical paths at each stage so people, equipment and materials are available when required.
2. Relationships with suppliers and subbies  
  • Have good relationships with suppliers, crane drivers, scaffolding companies and subbies. Consider each other’s needs, and discuss issues before they become a problem.
3. Site planning and maintenance  
  • Keep the site tidy, reducing stumbling and saving time finding things.
  • Work with the scaffolding company to discuss the design and ensure it meets the builder’s requirements. Ensure that scaffolding is checked weekly.
  • Address manual handling risks by identifying potential hazards and how they will be best managed. Ensure people and equipment are available at that time.
  • Ensure scaffolding can be adjusted temporarily so it is easier to install joinery.
  • Plan site layout ahead considering access, site security, hygiene and materials storage.
4. Health and safety culture and processes  
  • The manager or person in charge sets the standard and is key to reducing risk.
  • Encourage workers to bring up safety issues, knowing that they will be supported and that something will be done. Toolbox meetings help for raising safety issues.
5. Load sharing and teamwork  
  • Have more people on site to help with heavy handling, reducing weight and risk. Employ labourers to help with heavy tasks (framing, joinery, roof trusses, heavy or large sheets).
  • Use the truck-mounted lifting crane to lift materials. Have lots of people on site to help.
  • Work in pairs on site, with good teamwork and technique.
6. Materials design and delivery  
  • Get windows delivered unglazed and glaze once installed.
  • Deliver materials as close as possible to where they are needed – reduce double handling and travel distances.
  • Have framing assembled in smaller pieces that are easier to handle with fewer people.
  • Mark on the floor where the frames are to go, saving time and reducing double handling through mistakes.
7. Training and techniques for safe manual handling  
  • Use leverage to reduce the effort required. For example, use a fulcrum or sheet lifter to lift sheets of gib off the floor and into place on walls, use ropes and levers when handling trusses, use a crowbar for leverage.
  • Think about what is to be done before starting heavy tasks.
8. Mechanical assistance for heavy lifting or moving  
  • Use a truck-mounted lifting crane or larger crane wherever possible, reducing the need to handle heavy items, and lifting them into place or closer to where needed or as a brace.
  • Use a gib lifter.
  • Use diggers for footings and foundations.
  • Use a truck-mounted lifting crane to place timber and other building materials on the same scaffolding level as it will be used.
  • Hire a truck-mounted lifting crane or crane when required and schedule work for it, for example, timber packet placement or waste bin placement.
  • Leave one window out and crane materials into where they are to be used.


We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the 65 builders who took part in the study and MBA and NZCB for access to their members. To read the report, visit

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