New Code Offers More Advice on Preventing Manual Handling Injuries

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One of the most important workplace safety documents to be developed in recent times has just been released. It aims to help employers further reduce the risk from manual work that may cause a serious and costly musculoskeletal injury.

WorkSafe Victoria’s new ‘Hazardous Manual Handling Compliance Code’ has been made under the power of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act and approved in March by Victoria’s Finance Minister, Robin Scott, who is responsible for WorkSafe. The code applies to the hazardous manual handling part of the recently revised Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.

The 60-page “statutory instrument” explains what the Victorian regulator expects employers should be doing to reduce the risk of injury in their workplace from potentially hazardous manual tasks. Being a “compliance code” it balances the clout of a prescriptive, legalistic “code of practice” that Victorian dropped in 2004 with the style of a more readable “non-statutory” guide.

A compliance code can still be cited in an inspector’s legal directions to an employer during a compliance visit and be referenced used in legal proceedings for an offence under the OHS Act or more specifically against specific regulations. But an employer does not commit an offence by not following the advice of a compliance code if they have reached compliance by another means. This is reasonable given that a code can continue in force for many years – and unchanged – while understanding of ergonomics and materials handling technology advances.

The new document has no legal status outside Victoria. But its advice is just as relevant to any Australian workplace where workers are doing manual tasks. This is because the code adds to the state of knowledge (SOK) about eliminating or reducing the risk of hazardous manual handling that is the same issue in every state. SOK is what an employer is expected to know in the application of any state laws about this hazard, the risk and ways to eliminate or reduce the risk of injury. Safety inspectors from any jurisdiction will consider that at any workplace they visit, before determining the type of enforcement action they may take to ensure the employer is complying with local safety laws.

As the most contemporary technical advice on hazardous manual available, the Victorian code supersedes the 2011 national manual handling code. The national code was adopted by the other regional safety bodies such as SafeWork NSW. That document is now inferior to the Victorian document in some areas to the practical advice some employers might need now to solve manual handling problems, learn from manual handling injury claims and manage safe return work arrangements for injured workers.

The Victorian compliance code has been under development at WorkSafe Victoria’s ergonomics unit since its long-serving and widely used Manual Handling Code of Practice Code of practice of 2000 was revoked as a statutory document several years ago. Until now that old code remained a useful source of technical advice but has no legal standing.

The new code builds on the pioneering, more practical approach of the old document and takes account of what was improved in the national document.

In the intervening period, there was major change in what is considered acceptable in managing risk related to this hazard. In 2007 Victoria was the first jurisdiction to shift away from mandating risk assessment in favour of jumping straight to control measures in situations where the risk and the solution is known.

The new Victorian code states: “A formal risk assessment is unnecessary if knowledge and understanding about the risk, and how to control it already exist eg an employer who knows there is a risk of MSD associated with carrying an item over a long distance and knows that the risk can be eliminated through use of a height-adjustable four-wheeled trolley, can put the control in place immediately.”

This reflects the greater understanding of the risk and the ranges of readily available equipment and machinery to reduce that risk and, at the same time, improve materials handling efficiency. It also avoided relying on technical and sometime time-consuming ergonomic assessment that is beyond the capacity of some employers and may reach the same solution.

The code says that if there is any doubt about the level of risk and best way to deal with it, a risk assessment is still a recommended process. The code includes the latest advice on how to do this and has proven tools and checklists in its appendix to simplify the process.

Significant new content in the code includes advice on workload and pace of work, a current topic of concern as workplaces change, and recognition that worker “discomfort” from doing a task should be taken into account as an early identifier of risk.

The code is available free to download from WorkSafe Victoria’s website www.worksafe.vic.gov.au

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