Metal fabrication: Improving safety through work layout and design

Guidance for employers on how to use work layout and design to eliminate or reduce workplace health and safety risks in the metal fabrication industry.


Musculoskeletal disorders

Hazardous manual handling can cause injuries known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). These include:

  • sprains and strains
  • back injuries
  • soft-tissue injuries to wrists, arms, shoulders, neck or legs
  • hernias
  • chronic pain

Environmental conditions and psychosocial factors may also increase the risk of MSDs associated with hazardous manual handling.

Environmental conditions may include, but are not limited to:

  • vibration
  • heat
  • humidity
  • cold and wind
  • slippery and uneven floor surfaces
  • obstructions
  • poor lighting

Psychosocial factors may include, but are not limited to:

  • work demands, including workload and the pace of the work
  • low levels of control over work
  • poor levels of resourcing
  • poor levels of support by management, supervisors and colleagues

MSDs can happen suddenly or increasingly over time.

Metal fabrication examples include:

  • Suddenly: MSDs associated with manually handling heavy, large, bulky or awkward items.
  • Over time: MSDs associated with sustained awkward postures.

Hazardous manual handling

Work in the manufacturing environment can often be done in more than one way.

Employers must consider the health and safety of employees and contractors when deciding how the work would best be done to eliminate or reduce MSD risk and other physical injury, as far as is reasonably practicable.

Design workstations and work area in consultation with employees and contractors, so they can operate in the best working zone, which is between the shoulders and mid-thigh height, to reduce unnecessary forward back bending.

Work automation

Where work is highly repetitive, use machinery or robotics (Figures 1 and 2).

Sandblasting machine
Figure 1: Sandblasting machines eliminate the need for employees and contractors to remove rust manually.
Robot being used to stack punched sheet metal.
Figure 2: The robot eliminates the need for employees and contractors to manually stack punched sheet metal onto pallets

Work modification

Change the production process or the way the work is done to make it safe for employees and contractors.

For example:

  • Use mechanical aids such as overhead cranes, jib cranes, powered lifters or trolleys.
  • Push rather than pull products, using mechanical aids.
  • Accurately manufacture products so re-work such as grinding is reduced.
  • Raise the height of stillages to reduce overreaching and forward back bending.
  • Instead of frequently turning a product, weld all parts to the top of the product before rotating it to weld parts to the bottom.
  • Consider piping frequently used substances, such as gases or paints, into the building and connecting to workstations or work areas, machinery or equipment. This removes the need for employees and contractors to manually handle drums and cylinders when they need replacing.
Substances piped into a building.
Figure 3: Substances piped into a building can include welding gases, liquid nitrogen and spray paints.

Legal duties

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, employers must provide and maintain for employees and contractors a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. This includes eliminating so far as is reasonably practicable the risk of MSDs associated with hazardous manual handling. If it is not possible for employers to eliminate this risk, they must reduce the risk, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult with employees and contractors and health and safety representatives (HSR), on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them.

If employees are represented by an HSR, the consultation must involve that HSR, with or without the involvement of the employees directly.

It is important to consult with your employees and contractors as early as possible at each step of the risk management process.

Consult with your employees and contractors when planning to:

  • introduce new work or change existing work
  • select new plant
  • refurbish, renovate or redesign existing workplaces
  • carry out work in new environments

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