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Construction Safety and Health
Outreach Program
U.S. Department of Labor
OSHA Office of Training and Education
May 1996


Materials Handling

Handling and storing materials involves diverse operations such as hoisting tons of steel with a crane, driving a truck loaded with concrete blocks, manually carrying bags and material, and stacking drums, barrels, kegs, lumber, or loose bricks.

The efficient handling and storing of materials is vital to industry. These operations provide a continuous flow of raw materials, parts, and assemblies through the workplace, and ensure that materials are available when needed. Yet, the improper handling and storing of materials can cause costly injuries.

Workers frequently cite the weight and bulkiness of objects being lifted as major contributing factors to their injuries. In 1990, back injuries resulted in 400,000 workplace accidents. The second factor frequently cited by workers as contributing to their injuries was body movement. Bending, followed by twisting and turning, were the more commonly cited movements that caused back injuries. Back injuries accounted for more than 20 percent of all occupational illnesses, according to data from the National Safety Council1.

In addition, workers can be injured by falling objects, improperly stacked materials, or by various types of equipment. When manually moving materials, however, workers should be aware of potential injuries, including the following:

  • Strains and sprains from improperly lifting loads, or from carrying loads that are either too large or too heavy.
  • Fractures and bruises caused by being struck by materials, or by being caught in pinch points; and
  • Cuts and bruises caused by falling materials that have been improperly stored, or by incorrectly cutting ties or other securing devices.

Since numerous injuries can result from improperly handling and storing materials, it is important to be aware of accidents that may occur from unsafe or improperly handled equipment and improper work practices, and to recognize the methods for eliminating, or at least minimizing, the occurrence of those accidents. Consequently, employers and employees can and should examine their workplaces to detect any unsafe or unhealthful conditions, practices, or equipment and take the necessary steps to correct them.


General safety principles can help reduce workplace accidents. These include work practices, ergonomic principles, and training and education. Whether moving materials manually or mechanically, employees should be aware of the potential hazards associated with the task at hand and know how to exercise control over their workplaces to minimize the danger.


When manually moving materials, employees should seek help when a load is so bulky it cannot be properly grasped or lifted, when they cannot see around or over it, or when a load cannot be safely handled.

When an employee is placing blocks under raised loads, the employee should ensure that the load is not released until his or her hands are clearly removed from the load. Blocking materials and timbers should be large and strong enough to support the load safely. Materials with evidence of cracks, rounded corners, splintered pieces, or dry rot should not be used for blocking.

Handles and holders should be attached to loads to reduce the chances of getting fingers pinched or smashed. Workers also should use appropriate protective equipment. For loads with sharp or rough edges, wear gloves or other hand and forearm protection. To avoid injuries to the hands and eyes, use gloves and eye protection. When the loads are heavy or bulky, the mover should also wear steel-toed safety shoes or boots to prevent foot injuries if the worker slips or accidentally drops a load.

When mechanically moving materials, avoid overloading the equipment by letting the weight, size, and shape of the material being moved dictate the type of equipment used for transporting it. All materials handling equipment has rated capacities that determine the maximum weight the equipment can safely handle and the conditions under which it can handle those weights. The equipment-rated capacities must be displayed on each piece of equipment and must not be exceeded except for load testing. When picking up items with a powered industrial truck, the load must be centered on the forks and as close to the mast as possible to minimize the potential for the truck tipping or the load falling. A lift truck must never be overloaded because it would be hard to control and could easily tip over. Extra weight must not be placed on the rear of a counterbalanced forklift to offset an overload. The load must be at the lowest position for traveling, and the truck manufacturer's operational requirements must be followed. All stacked loads must be correctly piled and cross-tiered, where possible. Precautions also should be taken when stacking and storing material.

Stored materials must not create a hazard. Storage areas must be kept free from accumulated materials that may cause tripping, fires, or explosions, or that may contribute to the harboring of rats and other pests. When stacking and piling materials, it is important to be aware of such factors as the materials' height and weight, how accessible the stored materials are to the user, and the condition of the containers where the materials are being stored.

All bound material should be stacked, placed on racks, blocked, interlocked, or otherwise secured to prevent it from sliding, falling, or collapsing. A load greater than that approved by a building official may not be placed on any floor of a building or other structure. Where applicable, load limits approved by the building inspector should be conspicuously posted in all storage areas.

When stacking materials, height limitations should be observed. For example, lumber must be stacked no more than 16 feet high if it is handled manually; 20 feet is the maximum stacking height if a forklift is used. For quick reference, walls or posts may be painted with stripes to indicate maximum stacking heights.

Used lumber must have all nails removed before stacking. Lumber must be stacked and leveled on solidly supported bracing. The stacks must be stable and self-supporting. Stacks of loose bricks should not be more than 7 feet in height. When these stacks reach a height of 4 feet, they should be tapered back 2 inches for every foot of height above the 4-foot level. When masonry blocks are stacked higher than 6 feet, the stacks should be tapered back one-half block for each tier above the 6-foot level.

Bags and bundles must be stacked in interlocking rows to remain secure. Bagged material must be stacked by stepping back the layers and cross-keying the bags at least every ten layers. To remove bags from the stack, start from the top row first. Baled paper and rags stored inside a building must not be closer than 18 inches to the walls, partitions, or sprinkler heads. Boxed materials must be banded or held in place using cross-ties or shrink plastic fiber.

Drums, barrels, and kegs must be stacked symmetrically. If stored on their sides, the bottom tiers must be blocked to keep them from rolling. When stacked on end, put planks, sheets of plywood dunnage, or pallets between each tier to make a firm, flat, stacking surface. When stacking materials two or more tiers high, the bottom tier must be chocked on each side to prevent shifting in either direction.

When stacking, consider the need for availability of the material. Material that cannot be stacked due to size, shape, or fragility can be safety stored on shelves or in bins. Structural steel, bar stock, poles, and other cylindrical materials, unless in racks, must be stacked and blocked to prevent spreading or tilting. Pipes and bars should not be stored in racks that face main aisles; this could create a hazard to passers-by when supplies are being removed.


To reduce potential accidents associated with workplace equipment, employees need to be trained in the proper use and limitations of the equipment they operate. This includes knowing how to effectively use equipment such as conveyors, cranes, and slings.


When using conveyors, workers' hands may be caught in nip points where the conveyor runs over support members or rollers; workers may be struck by material falling off the conveyor; or they may become caught on or in the conveyor, thereby being drawn into the conveyor path.

To reduce the severity of an injury, an emergency button or pull cord designed to stop the conveyor must be installed at the employee's work station. Continuously accessible conveyor belts should have an emergency stop cable that extends the entire length of the conveyor belt so that the cable can be accessed from any location along the belt. The emergency stop switch must be designed to be reset before the conveyor can be restarted. Before restarting a conveyor that has stopped due to an overload, appropriate personnel must inspect the conveyor and clear the stoppage before restarting. Employees must never ride on a materials handling conveyor. Where a conveyor passes over work areas or aisles, guards must be provided to keep employees from being struck by falling material. If the crossover is low enough for workers to run into, it must be guarded to protect employees and either marked with a warning sign or painted a bright color.

Screw conveyors must be completely covered except at loading and discharging points. At those points, guards must protect employees against contacting the moving screw; the guards are movable, and they must be interlocked to prevent conveyor movement when not in place.


Only thoroughly trained and competent persons are permitted to operate cranes. Operators should know what they are lifting and what it weighs. The rated capacity of mobile cranes varies with the length of the boom and the boom radius. When a crane has a telescoping boom, a load may be safe to lift at a short boom length and/or a short boom radius, but may overload the crane when the boom is extended and the radius increases.

All movable cranes must be equipped with a boom angle indicator; those cranes with telescoping booms must be equipped with some means to determine the boom length, unless the load rating is independent of the boom length. Load rating charts must be posted in the cab of cab-operated cranes. All mobile cranes do not have uniform capacities for the same boom length and radius in all directions around the chassis of the vehicle.

Always check the crane's load chart to ensure that the crane is not going to be overloaded for the conditions under which it will operate. Plan lifts before starting them to ensure that they are safe. Take additional precautions and exercise extra care when operating around power lines.

Some mobile cranes cannot operate with outriggers in the traveling position. When used, the outriggers must rest on firm ground, on timbers, or be sufficiently cribbed to spread the weight of the crane and the load over a large enough area. This will prevent the crane from tipping during use. Hoisting chains and ropes must always be free of kinks or twists and must never be wrapped around a load. Loads should be attached to the load hook by slings, fixtures, or other devices that have the capacity to support the load on the hook. Sharp edges of loads should be padded to prevent cutting slings. Proper sling angles shall be maintained so that slings are not loaded in excess of their capacity.

All cranes must be inspected frequently by persons thoroughly familiar with the crane, the methods of inspecting the crane, and what can make the crane unserviceable. Crane activity, the severity of use, and environmental conditions should determine inspection schedules. Critical parts, such as crane operating mechanisms, hooks, air or hydraulic system components and other load-carrying components, should be inspected daily for any maladjustment, deterioration, leakage, deformation, or other damage.


When working with slings, employers must ensure that they are visually inspected before use and during operation, especially if used under heavy stress. Riggers or other knowledgeable employees should conduct or assist in the inspection because they are aware of how the sling is used and what makes a sling unserviceable. A damaged or defective sling must be removed from service.

Slings must not be shortened with knots or bolts or other makeshift devices, sling legs that have been kinked must not be used. Slings must not be loaded beyond their rated capacity, according to the manufacturer's instructions. Suspended loads must be kept clear of all obstructions, and crane operators should avoid sudden starts and stops when moving suspended loads. Employees also must remain clear of loads about to be lifted and suspended. All shock loading is prohibited.

Powered Industrial Trucks

The OSHA standard for Powered Industrial Truck Operator Training was revised March 1, 1999. Training information which follows relates to the previous standard, and while it still has practical applications, the reader should refer to the current standard for compliance.

Powered Industrial Trucks (Forklifts) Safety and Health Topics Page.

ForkliftWorkers who must handle and store materials often use fork trucks, platform lift trucks, motorized hand trucks, and other specialized industrial trucks powered by electrical motors or internal combustion engines. Affected workers, therefore, should be aware of the safety requirements pertaining to fire protection, and the design, maintenance, and use of these trucks.

All new powered industrial trucks, except vehicles intended primarily for earth moving or over-the-road hauling, shall meet the design and construction requirements for powered industrial trucks established in the American National Standard for Powered Industrial Trucks, Part ll, ANSI B56.1-1969. Approved trucks shall also bear a label or some other identifying mark indicating acceptance by a nationally recognized testing laboratory.

Modifications and additions that affect capacity and safe operation of the trucks shall not be performed by an owner or user without the manufacturer's prior written approval. In these cases, capacity, operation, and maintenance instruction plates and tags or decals must be changed to reflect the new information. If the truck is equipped with front-end attachments that are not factory installed, the user should request that the truck be marked to identify these attachments and show the truck's approximate weight, including the installed attachment, when it is at maximum elevation with its load laterally centered.

There are 11 different types of industrial trucks or tractors, some having greater safeguards than others. There are also designated conditions and locations under which the vast range of industrial-powered trucks can be used. In some instances, powered industrial trucks cannot be used, and in others, they can only be used if approved by a nationally recognized testing laboratory for fire safety. For example, powered industrial trucks must not be used in atmospheres containing hazardous concentrations of the following substances:

  • Acetylene
  • Butadiene
  • Ethylene oxide
  • Hydrogen (or gases or vapors equivalent in hazard to hydrogen, such as manufactured gas)
  • Propylene oxide
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Cyclopropane
  • Dimethyl ether
  • Ethylene
  • Isoprene, and
  • Unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine

These trucks are not to be used in atmospheres containing hazardous concentrations of metal dust, including aluminum, magnesium, and other metals of similarly hazardous characteristics or in atmospheres containing carbon black, coal, or coke dust. Where dust of magnesium, aluminum, or aluminum bronze dusts may be present, the fuses, switches, motor controllers, and circuit breakers of trucks must be enclosed with enclosures approved for these substances.

There also are powered industrial trucks or tractors that are designed, constructed, and assembled for use in atmospheres containing flammable vapors or dusts. These include industrial-powered trucks equipped with additional safeguards to their exhaust, fuel, and electrical systems; with no electrical equipment, including the ignition; with temperature limitation features; and with electric motors and all other electrical equipment completely enclosed.

These specially designed powered industrial trucks may be used in locations where volatile flammable liquids or flammable gases are handled, processed, or used. The liquids, vapors, or gases should, among other things, be confined within closed containers or. closed systems from which they cannot escape.

Some other conditions and/or locations in which specifically designed powered industrial trucks may be used include the following:

  • Only powered industrial trucks that do not have any electrical equipment, including the ignition, and have their electrical motors or other electrical equipment completely enclosed should be used in atmospheres containing flammable vapors or dust.
  • Powered industrial trucks that are either powered electrically by liquified petroleum gas or by a gasoline or diesel engine are used on piers and wharves that handle general cargo.

Safety precautions the user can observe when operating or maintaining powered industrial trucks include:

  • That high lift rider trucks be fitted with an overhead guard, unless operating conditions do not permit.
  • That fork trucks be equipped with a vertical load backrest extension according to manufacturers' specifications, if the load presents a hazard.
  • That battery charging installations be located in areas designated for that purpose.
  • That facilities be provided for flushing and neutralizing spilled electrolytes when changing or recharging a battery to prevent fires, to protect the charging apparatus from being damaged by the trucks, and to adequately ventilate fumes in the charging area from gassing batteries.
  • That conveyor, overhead hoist, or equivalent materials handling equipment be provided for handling batteries.
  • That auxiliary directional lighting be provided on the truck where general lighting is less than 2 lumens per square foot.
  • That arms and legs not be placed between the uprights of the mast or outside the running lines of the truck.
  • That brakes be set and wheel blocks or other adequate protection be in place to prevent movement of trucks, trailers, or railroad cars when using trucks to load or unload materials onto train boxcars.
  • That sufficient headroom be provided under overhead installations, lights, pipes, and sprinkler systems.
  • That personnel on the loading platform have the means to shut off power to the truck.
  • That dockboards or bridgeplates be properly secured, so they won't move when equipment moves over them.
  • That only stable or safely arranged loads be handled, and caution be exercised when handling loads.
  • That trucks whose electrical systems are in need of repair have the battery disconnected prior to such repairs.
  • That replacement parts of any industrial truck be equivalent in safety to the original ones.


Ergonomics is defined as the study of work and is based on the principle that the job should be adapted to fit the person, rather than forcing the person to fit the job. Ergonomics focuses on the work environment and items such as design and function of workstations, controls, displays, safety devices, tools, and lighting to fit the employees' physical requirements and to ensure their health and well being.

Ergonomics includes restructuring or changing workplace conditions to make the job easier and reducing/stressors that cause cumulative trauma disorders and repetitive motion injuries. In the area of materials handling and storing, ergonomic principles may require controls such as reducing the size or weight of the objects lifted, installing a mechanical lifting aid, or changing the height of a pallet or shelf.

Although no approach has been found for totally eliminating back injuries resulting from lifting materials, a substantial number of lifting injuries can be prevented by implementing an effective ergonomics program and by training employees in appropriate lifting techniques.

In addition to using ergonomic controls, there are some basic safety principles that can be employed to reduce injuries resulting from handling and storing materials. These include taking general fire safety precautions and keeping aisles and passageways clear.

In adhering to fire safety precautions, employees should note that flammable and combustible materials must be stored according to their fire characteristics. Flammable liquids, for example, must be separated from other material by a fire wall. Also, other combustibles must be stored in an area where smoking and using an open flame or a spark-producing device is prohibited. Dissimilar materials that are dangerous when they come into contact with each other must be stored apart.

When using aisles and passageways to move materials mechanically, sufficient clearance must be allowed for aisles at loading docks, through doorways, wherever turns must be made, and in other parts of the workplace. Providing sufficient clearance for mechanically moved materials will prevent workers from being pinned between the equipment and fixtures in the workplace, such as walls, racks, posts, or other machines. Sufficient clearance also will prevent the load from striking an obstruction and falling on an employee.

All passageways used by employees should be kept clear of obstructions and tripping hazards. Materials in excess of supplies needed for immediate operations should not be stored in aisles or passageways, and permanent aisles and passageways must be marked appropriately.


OSHA recommends using a formal training program to reduce materials handling hazards. Instructors should be well-versed in matters that pertain to safety engineering and materials handling and storing. The content of the training should emphasize those factors that will contribute to reducing workplace hazards including the following:

  • Alerting the employee to the dangers of lifting without proper training.
  • Showing the employee how to avoid unnecessary physical stress and strain.
  • Teaching workers to become aware of what they can comfortably handle without undue strain.
  • Instructing workers on the proper use of equipment.
  • Teaching workers to recognize potential hazards and how to prevent or correct them.

Because of the high incidence of back injuries, safe lifting techniques for manual lifting should be demonstrated and practiced at the work site by supervisors as well as by employees.

A training program to teach proper lifting techniques should cover the following topics:

  • Awareness of the health risks to improper lifting—citing organizational case histories.
  • Knowledge of the basic anatomy of the spine, the muscles, and the joints of the trunk, and the contributions of intra-abdominal pressure while lifting.
  • Awareness of individual body strengths and weaknesses—determining one's own lifting capacity.
  • Recognition of the physical factors that might contribute to an accident, and how to avoid the unexpected.
  • Use of safe lifting postures and timing for smooth, easy lifting and the ability to minimize the load-moment effects.
  • Use of handling aids such as stages, platforms, or steps, trestles, shoulder pads, handles, and wheels.
  • Knowledge of body responses—warning signals—to be aware of when lifting.

A campaign using posters to draw attention to the need to do something about potential accidents, including lifting and back injuries, is one way to increase awareness of safe work practices and techniques. The plant medical staff and a team of instructors should conduct regular tours of the site to look for potential hazards and allow input from workers.


To have an effective materials handling and storing safety and health program, managers must take an active role in its development. First-line supervisors must be convinced of the importance of controlling hazards associated with materials handling and storing and must be held accountable for employee training. An on-going safety and health program should be used to motivate employees to continue to use necessary protective gear and to observe proper job procedures.

OSHA's recommended "Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines" issued in 1989 can provide a blueprint for employers who are seeking guidance on how to effectively manage and protect worker safety and health. The four main elements of an effective occupational safety and health program are (a) management commitment and employee involvement, (b) worksite analysis, (c) hazard prevention and control, and (d) safety and health training. These elements encompass principles such as establishing and communicating clear goals of a safety and health management program; conducting worksite examinations to identify existing hazards and the conditions under which changes might occur; effectively designing the job site or job to prevent hazards; and providing essential training to address the safety and health responsibilities of both management and employees.

Instituting these practices, along with providing the correct materials handling equipment, can add a large measure of worker safety and health in the area of materials handling and storing.

1 National Safety Council. Accident Facts, 1989 and 1991 Editions, Chicago, IL.