Avoid Lifting-Related Back Strains with the NIOSH Strategy

In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that for all workers there were 365,580 cases of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as sprains or strains resulting from overexertion in lifting. Workers who sustained an MSD required a median of 13 days to recuperate before returning to work in 2014, compared to 9 days for all types of cases, and up from 11 days in 2013.

A significant workers compensation hazard for grocery stores is material handling and lifting. Employees may be lifting throughout the entire day without drastic effects. However, there are lifts that can be potentially dangerous to their back and overall body.

I conducted a random sampling of 10 Society Insurance customers that operate grocery stores and have determined the maximum average weight lifted on a day-to-day basis. The averages from the samples are as follows:

Average Maximum Lifting Weight: 43 lbs.

Average Amount of Times Lifting Maximum per Day: 2.65

Using these averages, we can determine if the maximum amount lifted by employees is dangerous by running the numbers through the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lifting equation – this is a tool used to assess manual material handling risks associated with lifting in the workplace. The best time to use the NIOSH lifting equation is when two-handed lifting, comfortable lifting postures, and comfortable environments are being used. In a grocery store most lifting is done with two hands when heavier materials need to be lifted.

The ultimate goal of the NIOSH lifting equation is to find the Recommended Weight Limit (RWL). The RWL is the weight at which a normal healthy employee could continuously lift an item or items over an 8 hour shift and be alright. By knowing the RWL an employer has the knowledge to help minimize the risk affiliated with lifting tasks.

In the case of the 10 sampled insureds, the average maximum lift is 43 pounds. The employees were lifting up to an average height of 36 inches. The employees were often lifting from the ground level so 0 inches was used as the starting point of their lift. The insureds’ employees would normally set their item down about 12 inches away from themselves after a 45 degree twist. The frequency of the lifts averaged about 2 times a day. All of these numbers where calculated and brought through the equation to come out to an RWL of 30.27 lbs. and a Lifting Index (LI) of 1.42, which indicates that there is a moderate chance of an injury. The LI is a measure of how significant the injury risk is. A LI of less than 1 is an acceptable lift. A LI of 1 to 3 is a lift that is susceptible to an injury. A LI that is greater than 3 is an unacceptable lift. For these grocery store employees, the maximum lifting weight from the ground to a height of 3 feet is a 30.27-pound item in accordance with the RWL calculated. This means for anything over 30 pounds, a lifting aid should apply.

Most grocery stores can manage heavier lifts through various aids. When maximum lifting weight is exceeded (in this case, over 30 pounds), consider the following tips:

  • Ask for help and team lift.
  • Maintain proper shelving methods, like keeping the heaviest storage items on the middle sectioned shelves. At this height, many employees will not have to bend over to lift.
  • Use pallet stackers to move excess items or to transfer items into a storage rack at the proper height.
  • Use a vacuum lift to load or unload bags/materials from pallets and that helps to take a majority of the lifting strain off of the employee.
  • Use stocking carts to hold food boxes at the proper height while the employee unloads the products inside.

Lifting heavy items is one of the leading causes of injury in the workplace. So, no matter what method a grocery store chooses to manage heavier lifts, it is important to aid employees to prevent strain.

If you are looking to apply the NIOSH lifting equation in your own business, install the “NIOSH Lift Index” app on your mobile device, or contact our Risk Control team for assistance.

-Adam Olijnyk


Adam obtained his bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater in Occupational, Environmental Health & Safety. He has experience in fire science, emergency medicine and risk control. Prior to joining Society as a risk control representative, Adam worked as a firefighter, emergency medical technician and safety coordinator.

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