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Help prevent back injuries with proper lifting techniques

Greenhouse plants


Working in the horticultural industry often means lifting and moving heavy items. From shrubs and cement blocks to bags of fertilizer, improper lifting can result in injuries to your back, shoulders, knees, and other body parts. And these injuries can be painful, long-lasting, and costly. Most back and material-handling injuries can be traced to these causes:


  • Lift frequency
  • Weight
  • Distance of lift
  • Body position
  • Awkward body posture
  • Prolonged or static holding
  • Level of personal conditioning

Asking for help when lifting is important—and that goes for your customers, too. Post signs letting them know staff can assist with any lifting needs, and stress to your employees they need to help customers lift items whenever possible.

Proper lifting techniques

When lifting, using proper technique is key. Twisting your back or leaning over and not bending your knees are some of the biggest causes of lifting injuries. Here are some proper lifting techniques OSHA and the Professional Landcare Network recommend:

  • Wear footwear with slip-resistant soles
  • Get a firm footing, then part your feet with one foot slightly in front of the other
  • Keep the load close to your body and directly in front of you
  • Keep your back as straight as possible, bend with your knees, and lift with your legs
  • Secure a good grip on the object, using available handles
  • Lift in a smooth, controlled manner
  • Avoid lifting loads higher than your chest

How heavy is too heavy?

When it comes to weight, how much is too much? Sometimes, you want a defined amount that you don’t lift. But the answer isn’t always that easy.

Weight alone doesn’t determine the risk for a back injury. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training, other factors include:

  • How often you’re lifting something
  • Whether you’re bending and twisting while lifting
  • How high you’re lifting an object
  • Whether you hold an object away from you while lifting
  • How long you lift or hold the object

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has created a lifting equation to set a recommended weight limit for one person under different conditions. The NIOSH lifting equation establishes a maximum load of 51 pounds, which is then adjusted to account for the five factors listed above.

To help deal with those heavy objects, there are some other mechanical aids that can reduce lifting risks:

  • Use a pneumatic lift platform or table to raise or lower the lifting surface to an optimal height.
  • Add a Lazy Susan top to allow the entire load to be rotated so you can lift the pallet or stack with minimal reaching and lower back twisting. This can be important if you palletize bulk orders for shipment.

Management support

Maintaining a successful safety program throughout your business requires the support of not just your employees, but your managers as well. Consider using these administrative strategies:

  • Job rotation: Use this short-term solution for employees who spend part of their work time in a strenuous task by splitting it between several employees. While the task may be strenuous, no one does it long enough to develop a repetitive motion or strain injury. The eventual goal is to implement a long-term, engineering-based redesign of the job.
  • Job enlargement: Give employees less hazardous tasks along with the ones considered high-hazard. It helps reduce a worker’s chance of developing a repetitive motion or strain injury. This is also a short-term solution.
  • Employee wellness, exercise, and stretching programs: Encourage employees to manage their own personal health outside the job. Improving their personal health and fitness with periodic exercise, stretching, smoking cessation, or weight control, can help decrease the risk of repetitive motion and strain injuries.

Injuries from lifting and bending are sometimes looked at as a cost of doing business. But don’t pass these types of injuries off as the norm and say there’s nothing we can do about them. Following these tips and remembering the most important element—if you need help, get some—will help you reduce your risks. For more on lifting safety and establishing your workplace program, contact your Hortica agent. We’re here to help.

Related links:

For more information on safety preparation for your business, check out the Hortica Resources section.

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