The recent case ofAli Ghaith v Indesit Co Ltd(2012) has given significant guidance on the responsibilities of employers under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992. Robert Spicer reports on this case and two other examples.

Manual handling relates to the movement of loads by human effort. It has been estimated that more than one third of all reported workplace injuries are caused by manual handling activities.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHO) create a clear hierarchy, described as “avoid, assess and reduce”. Employers are under a duty to avoid the risk of injury to employees arising from manual handling operations. Where this is not reasonably practicable, the employer must assess the risks and reduce risk to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.

Stocktaking lifting injury

The facts of the Ali Ghaith case, in outline, were that AG was a service engineer employed by I. He carried out a stocktake that required him to lift and move boxes from his van from 9.30am until 4.00pm with four short breaks. At 4.00pm he felt a severe pain in his back. He claimed compensation from his employer for a breach of regulation 4(1)(b) of MHO.

The employing company had issued a repair and maintenance risk assessment in August 2006, and a manual handling risk assessment in December 2006. These assessments related to the loading and handling of tote boxes in loading and despatch areas.

In May 2011, a fresh risk assessment was carried out that singled out stocktaking as a separate activity. It recommended that heavy weights should be left in the van and scanned there, and that the lifting and moving of items out of the van should be shared between the service engineer and the supervisor. It also stated that stocktaking was a process that took two hours to complete.

At first instance, the claim failed. The High Court ruled that the risk assessment had been suitable and sufficient. Although it might have been possible for the employer to reduce the risk by providing additional training or by splitting the task over two days or between multiple employees, those steps would not have made any difference.

AG appealed to the Court of Appeal. The issues for that court were, in summary, as follows.

  • Whether it was for an employer to show that the risk of injury was at the lowest level reasonably practicable and not for an employee to suggest what the employer should have done but did not do.

  • Whether the stocktaking could have been carried out over a shorter period or, if not, whether appropriate breaks should have been taken and whether heavier items could and should have been checked in the van.

The decision of the Court of Appeal was as follows.

  • The appeal would be allowed. I had not complied with its duties under the Regulations.

  • Where an employee was injured during a lengthy stocktake, the employer had breached regulation 4(1) (b) of MHO by failing to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and failing to take appropriate steps to reduce the risk.

  • The burden of proof was on the employer to prove that it had done everything reasonably practicable to reduce the risk of injury. It was not for the claimant to prove that, if all possible precautions had been taken, he would not have suffered injury.

  • Even where a suitable risk assessment had been carried out, the duty to reduce the risk was separate from, and additional to, that duty.

  • The assessment of May 2011 identified that the stocktaking operation should only take two hours. There was therefore strong support for the suggestion that there should be a break after every two hours or thereabouts.

The interpretation of MHO has given rise to a large number of decided cases, of which the Ali Ghaith case is the most recent and perhaps one of the most significant.

Manipulation of chicken carcasses

Another example is the Scottish case of Hughes v Grampian Country Food Group Ltd (2007).

The facts, in summary, were that H was a process worker employed by G. Her work included trussing the legs and wings of chickens with elastic string. This repeated manipulation of chicken carcasses exacerbated her symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. She claimed compensation from her employers, alleging a breach of MHO.

The Scottish court made the following points.

  • The term “manual handling operation” was defined in regulation 2 of MHO as “any transporting or supporting of a load”. This term was open to more than one interpretation, but an interpretation which led to absurd results should be avoided. Trussing chicken carcasses was not a manual handling operation.

  • A video recording of the work carried out by H showed her working while the carcass was on a work bench, or picking it up for a moment to apply the trussing string around it before placing it back on the work bench. While that manipulation was being performed, there was no transporting or supporting of a load.

Injury from fall

In the case of Williams v Caldicot and Wentlooge Levels Drainage Board (2003), W was employed by C as a labourer. His work involved cleaning out reens (drainage ditches). W and a colleague were attempting to remove a car seat using a long handled grab. They had been discouraged from entering the reens because of risks from the water. As they removed the seat, the grab became dislodged. W fell and was injured.

W claimed compensation from his employers, alleging that they had been in breach of MHO in failing to give him proper guidance, instruction and training as to how to assess the load to be moved and how and when to use the grab. It was also argued on behalf of W that the handling operation could have been avoided by a proper system of assessment and by the provision of a tractor, rather than relying upon W’s own assessment of the job and leaving him to call for a tractor if he found it necessary.

The county court ruled that the claim failed. It had not been reasonably practicable to avoid manual handling operations in the circumstances, nor could the necessary risks have been reduced further.

This case illustrates the principle that employers are less likely to be found liable in respect of breaches of health and safety regulations where they have complied with their obligations. The employers had given training, supplied safety equipment and carried out a risk assessment. They had complied with the statutory requirements.

Last reviewed 8 May 2013