Carrying coffins: the risks

words: Roisin McGroarty

As SAIF members are well aware, funeral services are incredibly emotive for the family and friends of the deceased. Funerals offer a dignified approach for people to say a final goodbye to their loved ones, but it does mean that coffin bearers regularly have to deal with the risks associated with heavy lifting.

The average coffin is 35kg without the body and it can put a lot of strain on the bearers.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advises caution and proper risk management of the situation and SAIF’s approved health and safety advisors, Safety for Business, is keen to stress the benefits of communication and teamwork at mitigating the risks.

Speaking to SAIFInsight, Simon Bloxham explained: “The advice we offer is for funeral directors to take every care while doing any manhandling. Yes, there should be risk assessments being made but as long as funeral directors are conscious of the potential dangers, while offering the family of the bereaved a professional service, then they are covering all bases.”

A recent report on the ‘Risk Factors Associated with Manual Handling of Coffins’ by the Health & Safety Laboratory revealed a number of high-risk factors that bearers have to contend with.

The report, completed on behalf of the HSE, studied a number of potential risk factors and recommended a series of measures that funeral directors and their staff could incorporate.

It recommended that bearers are advised of the coffin’s weight before manual handling, that aids – such as trolleys – are used where possible, that additional handles are offered to give bearers a better grip and that all new buildings used for funerals are fit for purpose.

Simon was keen to stress his support for the re commendation s and explained the most important element is communication.

“A lot of funeral directors are family businesses that have been open for generations and I really think they have the upper-hand,” commented Simon. “Families and staff who have worked together for years fit seamlessly together and they work as a team. They are able to talk to each other and know their strengths and weaknesses. This is certainly a major benefit but new business should ensure that all members of the team are fully prepared.”

He added: “When people in our organisation are manhandling objects we advise that the loads are split up, but you can’t do that with a coffin.

“Funeral directors have to ensure there is a technique available to coffin bearers, that they keep their back straight and bend at the knees. Trolleys are not the best to use and certainly with the family watching you wish to keep a dignified approach, something you cannot get from machinery, but use these devices when you are out of the public eye.”

Another suggestion that Simon suggested is to ensure that at least two people are always on hand when a funeral director is called to collect a body, especially if you are unaware of the weight of the deceased.

Burials pose another health and safety threat with burial plots incredibly tight.

The HSE report reveals that a carry distance of more than 10 metres presents a high-risk to the bearers and highlights the number of factors to consider, included limited hearse access, reopening of graves and the weather conditions which can increase the likelihood of slips, trips and falls due to rain, ice or wind.

Simon explained: “We were once called on to look at a case with a bearer who had slipped through another open grave during a burial.

“The man actually put his back out. During burials, if other graves are open, then they are usually covered by the site staff before a funeral party arrives but on this occasion it hadn’t been correctly fixed. It can be a real problem for bearers to navigate the site with all the hazards around, including the close burial plots and all the ornaments and flowers that are left on neighbouring graves.

“I would suggest that on arrival one member of the team goes ahead to check out the route and plan ahead for any potential trip hazards.”

When family members wish to carry the coffin it can cause further risks but a formulated approach should be taken in identifying if an individual is fit to bear the weight, based on their age and height. For those who are unsure, training is at hand.

“It is difficult with training as you have to try and fit it in to funeral directors’ busy schedules,” said Simon. “A lot of the bearers are contractors so getting them on site can be awkward. To ensure training is provided, the key members of personnel, who are always working, can be fully updated and given the information. A lot of the contractors do come from industries that provide manhandling training, such as the fire brigade, which is a big help.”

But as Simon added: “Accidents do happen and are sometimes almost unavoidable but it is best to mitigate these whenever possible. Work in teams whenever possible, communicate and complete risk assessments.”

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