Prevent handling above shoulder height when loading and unloading pallets

This guidance may help employers eliminate or reduce and control the risks to employees handling items above shoulder height when loading and unloading pallets.


The problem

Loading and unloading over-stacked pallets can put employees at risk. Handling items above shoulder height puts employees at risk of injury, particularly to their shoulders, arms, neck and back.

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 above shoulder height are at an increased risk of injury. The injuries, known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are most likely to affect the shoulders, arms, neck and back. Introducing mechanical aids, such as scissor-lifters, can also result in more work above shoulder height.

Worker reaching above shoulder height to remove an object.
Working above shoulder height trying to load the top of a pallet that is too high on a pallet lifter.


Employers can reduce the risk of MSDs by introducing methods to reduce the height of items on pallets.

If employees load or unload pallets above shoulder height, lower the height by:

  • reducing the layers of product stacked on pallets
  • ensuring suppliers do not stack their pallets as high
  • using low-profile lifters
  • providing workers with a platform to stand on
  • installing the adjustable scissor-lifter below floor level to reduce the pallet height
Employee using a pallet lifter on a ramp
Employee using a low-profile lifter.
Platform around employee workstation compensates for height of pallet lifter.
Platform around employee workstation compensates for height of pallet lifter.
Concrete cut away to fit height-adjustable pallet lifters
Cut concrete floor to allow for height-adjustable lifters.

Use guard curtains on scissor-lifters to avoid making new hazards such as crushing or nip points. Also ensure any work platform is suitable for its purpose and mark its edges to help prevent falls.

Make sure all employees who use the equipment or work in the area have received training. Training should include:

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

Make sure the equipment has an appropriate load rating and is appropriately maintained.

Talk to suppliers to determine the most practicable solutions.

Hazardous manual handling and MSDs

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.

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 work with items or loads on pallets at high levels, making sure the risk controls do not create new hazards. WorkSafe has guidance on consultation, including consultation with HSRs.