Last reviewed 11 October 2013

Martin Hodgson explains what early years employers should do to comply with the law in this area and minimise the risks for staff and children.


In July 2013, a former nursery employee won a legal battle against an early years provider after being left severely disabled by using a faulty cot at one of its nurseries.

During the case it was successfully argued that the employer had broken its own manual handling policies by requiring the former member of staff to use the defective equipment, despite knowledge that she already had a bad back.

The cot had drop-down sides which should have allowed a baby to be lifted out safely. However, in this case the mechanism was found to be defective and medical experts giving evidence at the trial said that leaning over to lift a baby in these conditions had caused a disc prolapse.

This case is one of many involving injuries due to manual handling accidents at work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) calculates that 1 in 10 major and almost a third of over 3-day injuries to employees involve manual handling, with an estimated 1.2 million working days lost in the UK each year.

What are the legal obligations of early years employers and how can they minimise the risks for their staff and children?

What is manual handling?

In a work context, any activity that involves the physical movement or supporting of an object or a load is described as manual handling, including activities such as lifting, carrying, lowering, pushing and pulling.

Accidents caused by incorrect manual handling are a common cause of staff injury and sickness, usually from back pain. In some cases these can be severe, as in the case above, and lead to compensation claims.

Where activities involve the handling of babies or children, risks will also include possible injury to the child being handled as well as the handler. Incidents where children have been dropped or handled improperly not only have the potential to cause injury but may also result in litigation.

Complying with the law

Under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of all employees and others affected by their work. In the case of manual handling this is reinforced by the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992.

All manual handling activities carry some risk, usually negligible, but the regulations require employers to avoid hazardous manual handling wherever possible. This can usually be accomplished by designing work processes and policies. However, where risks are unavoidable the regulations require the employer to have suitable manual handling risk assessments in place and to implement the results of such assessments to reduce the level of risks as far as possible.

These steps are sometimes simplified to: avoid, assess, reduce.

A risk assessment is merely a means whereby potential hazards are identified and control measures put in place to reduce the risks. The HSE provides the following model for risk assessment.

  • Identify any hazards.

  • Decide who might be harmed and how.

  • Evaluate the risks and decide on precautions needed.

  • Record the findings and implement them.

  • Review the assessment and update as necessary.

The HSE has also developed a tool called the Manual Handling Assessment Chart which can be used to help assess manual handling risk factors.

Assessments should be completed by a competent, suitably trained person. They should be recorded and regularly reviewed.

Manual handling risks

When conducting risk assessments early years managers should consider the:

  • task

  • load

  • environment

  • capability of staff involved.

They should take particular notice of factors such as:

  • awkward or heavy loads

  • staff with a history of back problems

  • cramped work areas

  • excessive fatigue

  • bad posture.

In an early years provision, most manual handling will involve small, light, regularly shaped items. Here the risks will be negligible. Moving items such as boxes of toys or foodstuffs, however, may require control measures to be introduced. For example, boxes could be split into small loads or trolleys provided so risks can be minimised.

Handling babies and disabled children

Where work involves the handling of babies and children, a common approach is to complete a suitable generic risk assessment and develop individual manual handling plans for specific children if, and where, required.

Babies can be heavy and will present a manual handling risk if not lifted or held carefully. The main problems are postural positioning and height issues regarding cots, chairs, etc.

Children with physical disabilities will require different levels of assistance and manual handling according to their needs. The manager of the provision should meet with parents and fully discuss the needs of the child, agreeing a manual handling plan wherever required as part of the overall plan of care. Any risk assessment should identify any moving and handling aids and techniques that are required to move the child safely in any situation. Where necessary, they should be completed with input from healthcare professionals or experts such as physiotherapists.

Government equality policy is for disabled children to be able to access any services wherever possible. The risks of moving and handling disabled children must therefore be managed in ways that do not limit their opportunities to participate fully in early years services, to play or enjoy life.

As well as their developmental needs, all risk assessments should consider the dignity and independence of each child.

Aids and equipment

Manual handling risks can be reduced by using appropriate equipment to make necessary tasks easier.

In an early years environment, particularly in a nursery provision, cots for babies should be provided which have adjustable sides. This should allow the side to be moved out of the way so that staff do not have to reach over the cot to lift out a baby.

For some disabled children a hoist may be required. These usually consist of a wheeled frame with an arm that holds a detachable sling. The hoist may be operated by an electric battery or by a hydraulic pump which raises and lowers the arm and allows a child to be moved safely, for instance from a wheelchair to a toilet.

Hoists should be carefully maintained and serviced according to manufacturers’ instructions and should only be used by appropriately trained staff.

Manual handling policies

Every early years provision should have a suitable policy in place which is agreed with staff representatives.

Staff training

Adequate training is vital in ensuring safe manual handling.

New staff should be given suitable induction training in manual handling and should be introduced to the workplace policy. Those who have specific manual handling roles should have additional training appropriate to their role and attend suitable refresher training at set intervals.

Employees have a duty under health and safety law to attend relevant training and to follow the instructions given.

Records should be kept of training sessions, attendance and content. Such documents are important as the employer may need to produce them in court if there is a claim.

When staff have to lift something, they should be trained to always assess the lift first and avoid lifting anything that is too heavy or awkward.

Manual handling incidents

Staff should be encouraged to report any manual handling accidents or incidents, including so-called "near-miss" incidents where an accident is narrowly averted. Each incident should be recorded and the cause investigated. Any changes to policies or procedures indicated by the investigation should be made, including additional training.

Managers should try to keep in touch with any staff on long-term sick leave with a manual handling injury and should utilise support from occupational health services where appropriate.

Further information

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publishes a free advice leaflet on its website called Getting to Grips with Manual Handling: A Short Guide for Employers.

The Scottish Government and Capability Scotland have published The Common-Sense Approach to the Moving and Handling of Disabled Children and Young People, written in consultation with the office of Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People. The publication addresses the issues of rights and responsibilities from the employer, employee and child's perspective.