General Information on Sprains and strains

Sprains and strains, injuries due to manual handling, are the most common injuries suffered by workers across all workplaces, and in all industries.

The use of force by a person to lift, push, pull, carry, or otherwise restrain any object is referred to a 'manual handling'. It is more than just lifting or carrying something. Manual handling includes pulling a lever, restraining an animal or using a tool or instrument, and includes working at a computer! 

Injuries due to manual handling, sprains and strains, are the most common injuries suffered by workers across all workplaces, and in all industries. They are also are responsible for 55% of all WorkCover claims, and 70% of claims over 1 year's length. Ergonomics and manual handling were the top hazards identified by health and safety reps in the national ACTU survey done in September 2001. This is despite the fact that Victoria has had regulations and a code of practice for manual handling for over 15 years.

More recently, in 2008 the National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance [NHEWS] survey collected information on 4500 Australian workers' exposure to nine biomechanical demands, pain and fatigue symptoms and the provision of various risk controls. Safe Work Australia has now released the report based on the results of the NHEWS: Exposure to biomechanical demands, pain and fatigue symptoms and the provision of controls in Australia workplaces  The survey revealed that almost 100 per cent of workers are exposed to the biomechanical (physical) demands in their workplace, with the majority of workers being exposed to multiple demands and approximately 20 per cent of workers reporting exposure to all nine demands.  In particular, young workers, male workers, night workers and lower skilled workers were most likely to report exposure and had the highest overall biomechanical demand exposure. Musculoskeletal disorders are still one of the leading causes of morbidity and disability and create a substantial burden to the individual and society. In Australia, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) account for the largest proportion of occupational disease workers compensation claims. Between 2002 and 2008, successful WMSD claims resulted in $361 million being spent on workers compensation payments per year. 

The ACTU and unions around Australia have an ongoing campaign to reduce the high level of sprains and strains.

What should health and safety reps do about manual handling?

The first thing to do is to find out whether manual handling is a problem at your workplace - is it a hazard? The easiest way to do this is to do a Body Mapping exercise with the members of your designated work group. Body Mapping is easy to do: it involves meeting with your members and asking them to mark on an outline of the human body where they 'hurt'.

Other ways of checking whether manual handling is a problem include talking to members, doing a survey on manual handling and checking the records of incidents, injuries and WorkCover claims. Go to the Toolkit section of the site for advice on how to collect information in your workplace, including how to do a Body Mapping exercise. 

If your investigations reveal that manual handling is a problem, then, as with any other hazard, you should approach your employer to ensure that the risks are eliminated or if this is not possible, reduced.  Part 3.1 (Manual Handling) of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (2007) requires the employer to identify tasks involving hazardous manual handling and implement controls to eliminate or, if this is not practicable, reduce the hazards and/or risks associated with the hazardous manual handling. (check the Manual Handling Regulations)

How do Manual Handling Injuries Occur?

Injuries are caused by hazardous Manual Handling tasks. These injuries often occur because:

  • Workers must adopt harmful postures in order to handle loads;
  • Workers are expected to lift loads which are too heavy;
  • Objects are not designed for ease of handling;
  • Workplaces are poorly designed (including work stations), and
  • Work systems are poorly designed, eg. frequency and pace of handing tasks increase the risks.

What are the legal requirements for manual handling?

The employer has the duty to eliminate or reduce the risk of manual handling injuries. Part 3.1 (Manual Handling) of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007 require an employer to do certain things to do this. In summary, your employer must:

1 - Identify hazardous manual handling tasks
According to the Regulations, a hazardous manual handling task is one which involves any of the following:

  • repetitive or sustained application of force;
  • repetitive or sustained awkward posture;
  • repetitive or sustained movement;
  • application of high force being an activity involving a single or repetitive use of force that it would be reasonable to expect that a person in the workforce may have difficulty undertaking;
  • exposure to sustained vibration;
  • manual handling of live persons or animals;
  • manual handling of unstable or unbalance loads, or loads which are difficult to grasp or hold.

The identification of hazardous manual handling tasks must be done before these tasks are undertaken, or before changes are made to the workplace.

In this way, the Regulations put the emphasis on good workplace design, which includes layout, objects and work methods, rather than fixing problems later, after injuries have occurred.

Once hazardous manual handling has been identified, the new regulations assume there is a risk, and require the employer to take action (in consultation with the Health and Safety Representative and workers performing the tasks) to:

2 - Control the risk
The Regulations specify that priority must be given to fixing the workplace problems first and attempting to eliminate the risks, rather than requiring the workers to cope with poor design of objects, tools, layout and methods.

The Regulations require that controls be implemented in the following order:

  • Altering
    • the workplace layout (eg. removing obstacles, providing more suitable space, re-designing storage areas)
    • the workplace environment (eg heat, cold, vibration) where the task involving the manual handling is undertaken 
    • the systems of work (eg. not moving objects at all, or moving them less frequently, or reducing the pace of work),
  • Changing the objects (reducing the weight, or fitting handles, or changing shape)
  • Using mechanical aids (always checking these are well maintained, that operators are properly trained or licensed, and that new hazards are not introduced to the workplace).

See a Summary of the Manual Handling Regulations section of the regulations - this includes a link to the full text. See also a July 2009 WorkSafe publication: Preventing the unseen injuries in your workplace  - a checklist to help prevent sprains and strains in the workplace, which are commonly caused by manual handling and slips, trips and falls.


The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 requires an employer to provide 'such information, instruction, training and supervision to employees as are necessary to enable the employees to perform their work in a manner that is safe and without risks to health'. While this also applies to manual handling tasks, training does not reduce the risk at source, and must not be used as the only control, nor as the first priority.

Duties of the Employees
The Regulation requires workers to cooperate when the employer takes action to eliminate or reduce manual handling risks.

Code Of Practice

The Manual Handling Code of Practice, issued in 2000 under the 1985 OHS Act, provides more information and on how to identify, assess and control manual handling risks, as well as checklists to be filled out for specific tasks. It includes many examples and diagrams. While the Code of Practice no longer has the same status as it had, it is still useful until such time as the Compliance Code for Manual Handling is developed.  The Manual Handling Code of Practice can be downloaded from the WorkSafe website or is available free from WorkSafe. 

See Also

Last amended May 2017


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