Loading and unloading pallets using vacuum lifters

This guidance explains how using a vacuum lifter may help employers eliminate or reduce and control the risks to employees manually loading and unloading pallets.


The problem

Manually loading or unloading items to and from pallets on the floor can put employees at risk of injury. The work involves frequent awkward postures and repeated use of force to lift and lower items. The awkward postures and repeated use of force can place employees at risk.

An employee unloading heavy bags from a pallet can be a risk.
Manually unloading bags from a pallet on the ground.

Legal duties

As an employer you have an obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This obligation requires you to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate those risks, you must reduce those risks, so far as reasonably practicable.

The risks

Employees who handle items while in bent, reaching or twisted postures are at risk of injury. The injuries, known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are most likely to affect the shoulders, lower back, abdomen and knees. MSDs can happen suddenly when lifting heavy objects. They are more likely to occur when employees are in awkward postures when they handle heavy objects. Wear and tear on joints and other parts of the body over time can also cause an MSD.


Employers can reduce the risk of MSDs by providing a vacuum lifter for employees to load and unload pallets. Vacuum lifters reduce the force required to handle an item. The lifter's handle design also minimises awkward postures when picking up items from the bottom, top and centre of a pallet.

Vacuum lifters can attach to many items, ranging from, for example, cans to suitcases, although boxes, bags and flat objects are most common.

Employee using vacuum lifter to load-unload pallet
Using a vacuum lifter to unload bags from a pallet.

While vacuum lifters significantly reduce the forces required in manual handling, they do not eliminate the risk of injury if the task still involves awkward postures.

Vacuum lifters must have enough rated capacity for the loads they lift. The lifters must also have regular and appropriate maintenance.

It is important not to suspend loads over people and not to release the vacuum until loads are fully supported.

Make sure all employees who use vacuum lifting equipment have received appropriate training. This training should include:

  • safe operation of the machinery
  • systems of work for its safe use
  • traffic management systems

Talk to suppliers to determine the most practicable solutions.

Manual handling is work where you have to lift, lower, push, pull, carry, move, hold or restrain something. It’s hazardous manual handling if it involves:

  • repeated, sustained or high force
  • sustained awkward posture
  • repetitive movements
  • exposure to sustained vibration
  • handling people or animals
  • loads that are unstable, unbalanced or hard to hold

Loading and unloading pallets involves hazardous manual handling. It can put employees at risk of an MSD. Employers have extra duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) relating to hazardous manual handling risks and MSDs. Details of those duties are in Part 3.1 of the OHS Regulations. WorkSafe also has guidance on hazardous manual handling.

Hazardous manual handling and MSDs

To reduce the risk of MSDs, make sure:

  • your workplace has adequate room and facilities for employees to safely perform their tasks
  • safe systems of work, processes and procedures are in place
  • employees are using the correct equipment
  • employees receive appropriate information, instruction, training or supervision so they fully understand the safest ways to load and unload pallets

Identifying risks and risk controls

Employers must identify the risks and provide risk controls, so far as reasonably practicable. This must happen in consultation with employees and any health and safety representatives (HSRs). Consultation should include discussions about how employees will load and unload pallets, making sure that risk controls do not create new hazards. WorkSafe has guidance on consultation, including consultation with HSRs.