Last reviewed 5 September 2016

In this article, Mike Sopp looks at the rules surrounding pushing and pulling of loads and examines the responsibilities of employers with regard to managing the risks.


According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), manual handling accidents account for more than a third of all accidents reported each year to the enforcing authorities.

There are well-known requirements to eliminate or reduce the risks from manual handling operations including the use of handling aids that enable the load to be pushed and/or pulled in a controlled manner rather than being carried.

However, the HSE highlight “pushing or pulling a load can harm the handler” and may introduce other risks of injury. Despite this, research undertaken by the HSE has found that the assessment for the particular pushing and pulling task was only being undertaken by around 50% of employers.

Pushing and pulling risks

The HSE Research Report, RR228 Review of the Risks Associated with Pushing and Pulling Heavy Loads, aimed to identify the risks associated with the pushing and pulling of such loads in order to provide practical guidance for future HSE publications.

As part of the research, information was extracted from the RIDDOR database that indicated that pushing and pulling was involved in 11% of manual handling RIDDOR accidents investigated by the HSE.

The report concluded that pushing and pulling may give rise to two types of hazards and the risk of injury, namely:

  • overexertion of the musculoskeletal system resulting in injury to the system

  • increased risk of accidents which can cause injury to other parts of the body.

The figures indicated that the most frequent site of injury was the back (44%) while the upper limbs came second (28.6%). It was also found that the majority of accidents (61%) involved pushing or pulling loads that were not supported on wheels while 35% involved wheeled objects. The report identifies three major accident types.

  1. Fingers and hands caught in, on, or between the trolley and a wall or piece of equipment.

  2. Feet, heels and the lower leg being bumped by or caught under equipment.

  3. Arm, shoulder and back strains associated with slips and trips.

The research also looked at the causes of accidents. This included the physical effort or posture being adopted, unstable loads, equipment failure and collisions/traps with other objects.

One of the key recommendations was the development of a pushing and pulling assessment checklist to be included in the HSE’s revised guidance on the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992.

Assessment and controls

It is an incorrect assumption that the Manual Handling Operations Regulations only apply to the lifting, lowering and carrying of loads. They do in fact also apply to pushing and pulling of loads as well.

To reflect this, the guidance document L23 makes specific reference to pushing and pulling loads. As with other manual handling operations an initial assessment using the “risk assessment filter” can be undertaken so as to determine if a full risk assessment is required. The guideline figures given for the force to be applied are as follows.

  • For stopping or starting a load: 20kg for men and 15kg for women.

  • For keeping the load in motion: 10kg for men and 7kg for women.

These guideline figures assume the force is applied with the hands, between knuckle and shoulder height. It is also assumed that the distance involved is no more than about 20m.

The guidance states that “if these assumptions are not met, a more detailed risk assessment is required” but even if they are met “a detailed risk assessment will be necessary if risk factors such as uneven floors, confined spaces, or trapping hazards are present”. A full assessment will also be required where an individual has particular issues such as ill health.

L23 now contains a sample assessment checklist and the HSE has also recently published an online tool to assist in completing the risk assessment (the RAPP Toolkit). In essence, the documents noted review various aspects similar to those for lifting of loads but with additional aspects such as the wheels or casters on the equipment to be used and whether the equipment is subject to regular maintenance.

When reducing the risks from pushing and pulling, L23 now recommends that the following points be considered.

  • Route length — can this be reduced, for example, by putting storage areas closer to loading bays?

  • The number of journeys — is it better to do repeated journeys rather than fewer demanding ones?

  • How demanding the work is — can rest breaks be built into the work pattern?

  • Obstacles that may be on the route — can we keep the route clear?

  • Floor surface condition/maintenance — do we need to repair surfaces and make sure they are clean and dry?

  • Whether or not the task involves negotiating kerbs, steps or slopes — can they be avoided or can gradients be reduced?

The presence of slopes, in particular, can create risks as forces required increase when pushing or pulling on slopes and must be given careful consideration. As an example, a load of 400kg and a slope of 1 in 12 (4.8ºC), the additional force required is 33kg, which put it above the guideline figures.

Technique and trolley criteria

How the load is pushed and/or pulled and the equipment used are important factors to consider.

L23 states that “a secure footing should be ensured, and the hands should not be applied to the load much below waist height or above shoulder height” and that “a good hand grip or coupling with the load is essential”.

As such, it recommends that the load should be equipped with suitable hand grips, cut outs, or finger slots for two hands with the handle or handholds being between 3.2cm and 4.5cm and a vertical height of between 91cm to 114cm.

Using a trolley, or some other piece of equipment supported on wheels is quite common for pushing and pulling loads. The HSE states that it is important to ensure that the equipment being used is of the correct type for the load, is well maintained (particularly any braking system), fitted with the correct type of wheels and is provided with the correct height handle. To ensure the correct selection of equipment, a number of factors must be considered including:

  • the load expected to be pushed/pulled

  • the frequency of use

  • floor surface condition on which it is to be used

  • other workplace characteristics (including aisle widths and floor types)

  • the load bearing design of the equipment.

Although not included in the revised L23, Research Report 223 did summarise a “specification for trolley design guidelines”. This considers a number of characteristics of a trolley based on its dimensions, external features and the wheels or castors. The recommendations include:

  • trolley height of 140cm (if higher, it should allow visibility through the frame or mesh)

  • length is recommended to be 1.5 to 2 times its width

  • shelf height for heavy or frequently used items should be 80cm to 110cm with only light items being stored on shelves lower than 60cm or higher than 110cm.

In respect of external features, recommendations reflect those in L23 for handles while further information is given on the use of buffers and towing fixtures. Perhaps of most interest, it recommends that trolley weight should be about 25% of the load for which it is designed for.

Finally, recommendations are made in respect of wheel/castor alignment, diameters, material and bearings.

Further information

The following are available from the HSE:

Research Report 228 Review of the Risks Associated with Pushing and Pulling Heavy Loads

L23 Manual Handling. Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (as amended). Guidance on Regulations