Workers Health & Safety Centre

Safe lifting training must look beyond worker behaviour, review finds

Teaching workers the “straight back, bent knees” lifting technique, without considering their job demands and work context, will prove ineffective finds a systematic review.   

Researchers at Quebec’s independent, government-funded Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail, IRSST, have published a literature review of manual material handling training studies, Why Doesn't Training Based on Safe Handling Techniques Work?  A Critical Review of the Literature.  Previous meta-analyses largely concluded that safe lifting training had limited effectiveness, but few explained why. The Quebec researchers set out to explore this knowledge gap.

Study quality matters too

For this work, IRSST researchers reviewed five meta-analyses, covering 77 research papers on safe handling techniques published between 2007 and 2014. A meta-analysis is a type of systematic review that adds the findings from many studies to create one large overview. This approach can be useful in assessing the impact or effect of a specific program using all the relevant, existing research.

IRSST researchers divided the studies into categories using four quality criteria associated with training effectiveness: training content adapted to the workplace context, motor engagement to apply a learned skill, contextualized practice, and workplace ergonomic changes. 

The researchers found only one in ten training studies met all four quality criteria. More than half of the studies reported the training had positive effects, findings contradicted in the meta-analyses. IRSST researchers offer this explanation. The findings from the small number of quality studies were overemphasized and secondly, the quality evaluation studies tended to focused on easy to assess, simple training programs, which may yield positive findings.

Effective training must reflect working conditions, not worker behaviour

Most of the training content focused solely on learning and adopting safe handling techniques, in other words, the learner and their behaviour. Only two of the four review criteria were associated with greater training effectiveness namely workplace ergonomic changes and to a lesser degree, training content adapted to the workplace.

The IRSST researchers made these recommendations for more effective safe handling training:
  • Training content should also include other skills relevant to work and a changing work environment
  • A skills-based approach is advocated versus learning one narrow predetermined technique
  • Researchers need better methods to evaluate more complex training programs.

Overall, the researchers concluded, “Training should not target the individual, but rather the interactions between the individual and the work context.” They further conclude narrow training focused solely on learning safe handling has little impact on prevention.

WHSC offers quality information and training

The Workers Health & Safety Centre assists workplace parties with comprehensive training programs and information services. WHSC designs its training programs to go beyond legal minimums to help ensure real learning is achieved. Equipped with this training, participants will be better prepared to play an active role in workplace prevention efforts. WHSC offers a number of Ergonomics Training programs covering a range of workplace issues from Manual Material Handling to Work Design.

Check out these related WHSC information resources:
Ergonomic Resources
WHSC Resources Hazard bulletin on Manual Material Lifting

Related WHSC news articles:
NIOSH launches new mobile app based on Revised NIOSH Lifting Equation
“Systemic” health and safety problems leads to conviction

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