How to Test for Heavy Lifting Demands

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 12, 2015 8:00:00 AM / by Deborah Lechner

It’s not just the law that makes complying with OSHA standards for occupational safety and health a priority for employers. Protecting the well-being of workers is just good business – after all, good people are hard to find, so savvy employers take good care of them. Complying with regulations and avoiding the hassle and expense of OSHA violations is only one of the many benefits. And when it comes to compliance, a common source of employer concern is the heavy lifting demands of the jobs for which they hire - demands that may exceed OSHA standards.

What are the OSHA Standards for Heavy Lifting?

Evaluating whether or not the lifting demands in your workplace exceed OSHA standards begins with knowing exactly where the agency stands on the issue. A case study regarding an OSHA interpretation letter, written in response to a request for clarification on OSHA standards in regards to lifting limits, provides some guidance as to the agency’s position.

The original inquiry that prompted this interpretation letter was related to certain physical ability tests required of potential employees applying for a position with an ambulance service, including one that consisted of carrying a 160 pound weight up and down five flights of stairs three times. The question posed was this: Is there a policy or guideline which states the maximum weight a person may lift?

In response to this question, Richard E. Fairfax, Director of the Directorate of Enforcement Programs, stated that OSHA does not have a standard that sets limits on how much weight a worker may lift or carry. However, Fairfax also pointed out that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a sister agency, has developed a mathematical model, based on the weight being lifted and a variety of confounding factors, that aids in predicting the risk of injury. That model is based upon medical research into the compressive forces needed to cause damage to bones and ligaments in the back. According to NIOSH, a lifting index of more than 3.0 as determined by their lifting equation is classified as a highly stressful lift and can be clearly linked to an increased risk of back and other injuries.

The NIOSH criteria are not mandatory. However, Fairfax points out that adhering to them is the optimal approach to ensuring OSHA compliance. While OSHA has no specific standards in place to address this issue, employee exposure to recognized heavy lifting and back injury hazards may constitute a violation under Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act – the General Duty Clause.

Testing For Heavy Lifting Demands

What this means for your business, if heavy lifting is expected of some or all of your workers, is that quantifying the lifting demands they face every day is important both for OSHA compliance as well as the health and safety of your employees. This work is best done with the help of an organization or professional who is well-versed in OSHA requirements and is capable of putting the NIOSH lifting equation to use in determining whether heavy lifting demands in your workplace create an injury hazard. If your job requirements exceed OSHA lifting guidelines and if it’s feasible, reducing the heavy lifting to bring your workplace into compliance is certainly optimal. Note the emphasis on "feasible."

Take, for instance, the ambulance service employee in the example above. Lifting and carrying the full weight of the human body is unavoidable, and our population is only getting heavier. Now, the employer can certainly aim to staff their crews so that there is always more than one person doing the heavy lifting. But let’s say the patient in question weighs over 400 lbs – not uncommon in today’s obesity epidemic. How many people can be deployed to every call? What if the patient is wedged between the toilet and bath tub in a small bathroom? While it’s certainly desirable, it’s simply not feasible to get more than one crew member into such a tight, confined space. Regardless of regulations, the patient has to be transported. But how can it be done safely and without risking additional injury?

This is just one example of many types of lifting we see when conducting job demands analysis and developing physical ability screens: the regulations aren’t always clear, and the guidelines can’t always be met. Developing an "OSHA compliant" screen may not be feasible; in some situations it may not even be possible. So what are the alternatives? What is, in fact, "feasible?" The answer is to do just as this employer was already doing – conducting pre-employment/post-offer Physical Abilities Testing (PAT). PAT, one that accurately captures the essential elements of the job and is backed by an evidence-based and quantitative job demands analysis, helps employers hire only those candidates who have demonstrated their ability to safely perform these unavoidably heavy lifts and are much less likely to be injured when they do.

When are Physical abilities test best performed

Topics: Pre Employment Screening

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.