Ergonomic Safety Standards for Manual Material Handling: A Global Phenomenon

The United States is unique among industrialized nations in its approach to ergonomics legislation. Many employers abroad are legally compelled to protect workers from the risks of injury associated with manual material handling. Although, in the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is left to correct the most egregious ergonomic violations with the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act of 1970, a legal tool that’s blunted by the broadness of its language. (For more on how this came to pass, read our coverage here).

Employers who are dedicated to preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace can learn a lot from the occupational safety laws of other nations, no matter where they do business. Here’s a brief overview of legal approaches to ergonomics in a few places outside the U.S.

Manual Material Handling in European Union Member States

In 1990, the European Union passed Directive 90/269/EEC, a guideline that “lays down minimum health and safety requirements for the manual handling of loads where there is a risk particularly of back injury to workers.”

Directives from the European Union aren’t exactly laws; they define an agreed-upon result, but it’s up to each member state to pass laws that achieve that result. Still, Directive 90/269/EEC is clear about employer obligations in EU countries.

“Employers shall take appropriate organizational measures, or shall use the appropriate means, in particular mechanical equipment, in order to avoid the need for the manual handling of loads by workers,” it states (emphasis ours).
ergonomics standards worldwide

Ergonomics in Canada’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations

The Canadian government’s most recent set of regulations for Occupational Health and Safety were compiled in 2011. Among many ergonomic protections laid out by SOR/86-304, Division III is dedicated entirely to “manual handling of materials.”

This regulation is familiar to anyone who has studied international occupational law. “Where…the manual handling of materials, goods, or things may be hazardous to the health or safety of an employee, the employer shall issue instructions that the materials, goods, or things shall, where reasonably practicable, not be handled manually.”

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers advice on how to avoid manual material handling. Eliminate the practice, the agency tells us on its web page, by “using powered or mechanical handling systems.” If taking the load off a worker’s back entirely isn’t possible, the CCOHS has this piece of advice: “Where possible, use mechanical aids.”

Ergonomic Standards in Australia

Each of Australia’s six states and two internal territories issues its own occupational safety and health statutes. Plus, the Commonwealth passed a nation-wide set of workplace safety laws. That means there are nine overlapping sets of regulations governing occupational health in Australia.

Just to simplify things, we’ll limit ourselves to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (2011-674) of New South Wales, the legal document taken as a model for the country by the International Labour Organization.

Chapter 4, part 4.2 of that law states that “a person conducting a business or undertaking must manage risks to health and safety relating to a musculoskeletal disorder associated with a hazardous manual task.” This is a unique legal approach; rather than addressing manual material handling as if in a vacuum, the wording ties the hazardous practice directly to its potential negative result.

Of course, these are only a few examples of the diverse legal approaches to the problem of MSDs caused by workplace material handling. They do reveal a common thread, though. In each of these examples (and many more not listed in this limited space), the way you protect workers from MSDs caused by manual material handling is to take the load from their shoulders. Material handling equipment, from Lift Tables to Bin Tippers to tilting work platforms, prevents injuries. Legislative bodies all over the world are recognizing that fact — even if the United States hasn’t yet signed it into law.


Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations – SOR/86-304.” ILO. International Labour Organization, 30 Sept. 2011. PDF. 21 May 2016.

Directive 90/269/EEC – manual handling of loads.” Europa. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Union, 29 May 1990. Web. 21 May 2016.

LEGOSH Australia 2013.” ILO. International Labour Organization, 2013. Web. 21 May 2016.

LEGOSH Canada 2013.ILO. International Labour Organization, 2013. Web. 21 May 2016.
OSH Answers Fact Sheets – Back Injury Prevention.” CCOHS. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, n.d. Web. 21 May 2016

Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011.” NSW. New South Wales Government, 1 Feb. 2016. Web. 21 May 2016.