Handling the deceased

words: Simon Bloxham, Health and Safety Strategist, Safety for Business

Manual handling is such an inherent part of working in a funeral home and can cause injury so easily.

Your funeral home could be liable for a claim for industrial injury, with its associated costs and/or enforcement action from the HSE, if someone hurts their back whilst doing such activity for you.

Manual handling of large, heavy or cumbersome loads such as coffins poses a significant risk of injury, but what about the ever-increasing weight from the deceased that we need to handle? There are trolleys and other equipment for loads but what do we do when it’s the middle of the night and the person has passed away in an awkward position or who is classed as obese?

It is now well documented that we have an obesity crisis here in the UK. Someone is obese when their Body Mass Index is 30 to 39.9 and you are severely obese if it is 40+. Does that help? Probably not. You will know when you turn up to retrieve a body whether that person is going to be a problem to move.

How large is the problem?

Back pain is an extremely common complaint. An estimated 80% of people in the UK are affected at some time in their lives. It is also one of the main reasons for sickness absence.

  • On any one day about 1% of the working age population are on sickness absence due to a back problem.
  • Nearly 5 million working days are lost through bad backs. On average each person affected took about 20 days off in that period.
  • Most back pain is caused by strains and minor injury rather than serious injury and is often called “simple back pain”. Although the pain often comes suddenly and may be triggered by a particular movement, the causes may have been building for some time.

What are the possible hazards associated with undertaking people handling activities?

The key hazard is that the move may go wrong. The handler may slip or trip or they might adopt a poor posture, for instance an awkward twist or overreach. Any of these events could result in a severe muscular-skeletal injury to the person or handler or both. Recovery from such an injury could take several months or even years to fully recover from. In some extreme cases, a full recovery never occurs.

What can you do?

As an employer you have a legal duty to reduce or eliminate risk wherever possible but at the end of the day the deceased person still needs to be taken away, so you will have to get in there and do something.

Stop and think about the situation first. Make a plan of what you are going to do. Consider the following:

  • Where are you taking the load? Plan the whole route first. Does it involve stairs, tight corners or uphill sections.
  • Is it a long route? Might you need to rest mid-way?
  • Are there obstacles that need removing?
  • How much help do you need? Can you call for more assistance?
  • Is there room for everyone to get into a good posture?
  • Can you see what you are doing?
  • Is moving the load within your capabilities or do you need to ask for the assistance of the emergency services?
  • Do you require special equipment? Special equipment can include some of the items used in hospitals and care homes such as hoists, slings, slide sheets and lifting cushions.

Just a word of warning. If you do contact the Fire Service to give you some assistance, they will look at charging for the help as this type of work is not an emergency. Sometimes they may waive a charge, however this is unlikely if a company calls them.

Investigate equipment

Some pieces of equipment used to move patients in hospitals and care homes could be helpful. Patient lifting cushions, slide sheets and hoists are all worth considering. They may not suit every situation, but it may be worth getting some further advice from suppliers who will be more than happy to help.

Help is at hand: getting the best from your SAIF approved health and safety advisors. You can talk to a safety professional at Safety For Business simply by calling 08456 344164. You are also entitled to a discount on our fees when we help you with your Health & Safety needs. We can visit you to see how you are doing when it comes to compliance. This is free of charge apart from travel costs. So what do you have to lose?

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