The feminist lobby did, for a while, manage to persuade the ‘rule makers’ that manual handling guidelines should be gender neutral – but it became clear that this was an impractical approach and these are now very clearly gender specific.
The big issue, however, is that most organisations are unable to differentiate between guidance – in other words advice relating to good practice – and legislation; that which must be done in order to be compliant.
Manual handling regulations are a perfect example of guidance being treated as ‘the law’. Expecting a woman to lift weights at the same level as a man was unrealistic, and there are guidelines. So, for instance, when lifting a box with handles from desk height, the average weight for a man to lift was 25kgs, but for a woman only 16kg. This doesn’t mean that a woman cannot lift 25kgs, it just means that this is a good practice guideline for most women.
Falling outside the average
The strongest woman will never be able to lift more than the strongest man, but may well be able to lift more than the average man. However, the first step is to find out the individual’s personal capacity.
When the guidelines apply
The recruitment process should not focus on an individual’s lifting ability, however, you can state that the role requires the applicant to be physically fit and provide details of the actual task – such as moving a wheelbarrow or carrying large objects. The pre-employment health assessment should include properly supervised strength tests to establish where the individual’s lifting capacity sits most comfortably and, once that information has been established a reasonable safety margin can be built in.
How not to do it
When the new guidelines came out the construction industry purchased cement in 56kg bags. To meet the new guidelines the manufacturers changed the size of bags to 25kg in order to fall within the ‘requirements’. What happened? Do construction workers make twice as many journeys when moving bags of cement about?
No – they just carry two bags at a time!
… and the point is…
Manual handling guidelines are guidelines. They’re very useful to ensure good practice is the starting point, but are only a starting point. Every person in the organisation whose role requires lifting and handling of loads in excess of the guidelines needs to undergo relevant tests and then have a person-specific risk assessment carried out.
If a person has a higher lifting capacity than the guidelines state, then there is no reason why they should not apply this in the workplace, providing they have been taught how to lift properly.
Similarly, if someone struggles to lift the average weights their personal risk assessment will reflect that and they should be given a lesser limit.
This issue is not confined to manual handling guidelines – it should be remembered that guidance is guidance; good practice – not the law.