Are your work practices safe?

Like any teacher librarian, I have always been happy to do whatever was necessary to achieve my goals, assuming that I was fit and well and able to carry out tasks safely and in accordance with current expectations and work practice. During the years I have worked in several school libraries. Along the way there have been the usual changes, such as amalgamating a junior and primary school campus; relocating libraries to upgraded premises; and packing, moving and reinstalling resources and shelving associated with renovating. This has been on top of the regular storage, processing, stocktaking and day-to-day circulation tasks. While there have been times when my arms have felt very weary, I never contemplated that the repetitive work involved could cause serious injury.

Health and safety implications

The schools in which I have worked carry out annual workplace health and safety audits. Often this is done as a whole-of-staff exercise, with one or two teachers assigned to different areas of the school to go through a designated checklist and identify potential hazards. As the task is often treated as an after-school or staff meeting activity, there is always the possibility that expediency assumes a greater priority than attention to detail. In addition, there is the possibility that a staff member assigned to audit a particular area is not thoroughly conversant with the restrictions or activities that are involved there on a daily basis. Thus, certain issues may be unknowingly overlooked because the staff member is not familiar with them.

Avoiding injury

The performance of manual tasks is the major cause of injuries in libraries. These can be divided into load handling and repetitive tasks involving the hand and arm. Load handling includes physically lifting, lowering, holding, pushing, raising, pulling, carrying or sliding an object or load. Shelving is one such load handling activity that may involve:

  • the repeated bending and twisting of the trunk when removing items from a trolley
  • pushing a trolley
  • stretching, twisting and replacing books on shelves
  • handling loads located below the knee and above shoulder level.

Removing, scanning and sorting book returns, moving audiovisual or other equipment, moving reading boxes, returning heavy encyclopedias and reference materials to shelves, and clearing away and replacing books left on tables are all repetitive tasks involving load handling.

Back, shoulder and wrist injuries are the most common injuries related to load handling. While isolated injuries can occur, it is the gradual wear and tear caused by repeated stress that contributes to injuries in most cases. Manual handling tasks that risk injury to workers should be eliminated, and all tasks should be assessed and controlled using the risk management process.

This can be done by:

  • using correct manual handling equipment such as the correct types of trolleys for certain tasks
  • placing the trolley in line with yourself and the shelf to avoid excessive twisting
  • never keeping heavy photocopying paper below knee level
  • storing heavy items at waist level
  • ensuring a path has been cleared when carrying heavy loads, as well as a place to put the load down
  • avoiding double handling
  • holding heavy items as close to the body as possible
  • ensuring you have ergonomic furniture, especially for computer use
  • ensuring whiteboards are at the correct height for easy use.

The frequent use of technology in school libraries has added increased opportunities for static postures and repetitive movements while performing such tasks as:

  • online searching
  • automated circulation
  • cataloguing
  • general word processing
  • preparing books for patron use.

These tasks all require the combination of small, repetitive movements and can involve a twisted, static posture that affects the neck, shoulders, arms and wrists. Early symptoms include persistent pain, tingling, numbness, burning, reduced movement and aching.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should fill out an injury report form as soon as possible. If untreated, they can result in loss of strength in the affected area, chronic pain or permanent disability. If you think your problem is not severe, it may well become worse. A record of your injury will help to prove that it is work-related, if you need to do so later on.

Minimising the risk

Check that your office layout and furniture are suitable for the work being carried out. It should reflect, and be suitable for, the tasks being done. At the same time, it offers staff the chance to change tasks to counteract the effects of repetitive, static or continuous work. A computer workstation should be at a desk appropriate to the user's height with knees and elbows at 90 degree angles, the keyboard in front of the screen with a space for the user's wrist in front of the keyboard, and a document holder nearby. The chair should be sized to match the desk, with appropriate height and lower back adjustments.

Other ways you can avoid injury are:

  • alternating tasks and changing your working position
  • taking rest breaks to allow muscles a chance to recover
  • making time to do some stretching exercises
  • avoiding holding your mouse too tightly
  • working at a reasonable pace.

A great deal has been written about ergonomics in the workplace. In many schools today, where money is often in short supply, teachers have become accustomed to 'making do' with whatever furniture is available. Staff, as well as students, usually have to make the best of whatever seating and table space is allocated to them. I am beginning to wonder if, in the future, we will have a host of school graduates with skeletal problems resulting from poor posture and seating during their formative years. While money is being spent on technology, often the ergonomics involved in its related use are overlooked.

Learning the hard way

I discovered that the problems I had been experiencing were serious, and they are not uncommon to library staff. Not wanting to seem unable to carry out the tasks associated with my role, I quite wrongly assumed that the muscle strain and tiredness I had been experiencing in my arms and shoulders after each heavy manual handling task was simply a temporary inconvenience that would pass. The pain and inconvenience associated with such injury has given me a greatly heightened awareness of the limitations that I have obviously exceeded during the years, and also of how vulnerable we are as workers in workplace where the standards and equipment are often questionable.

Julie Smith was a primary classroom teacher before becoming a teacher librarian and is currently at Torrensville Primary School, South Australia. This article was published in Access, March 2004. Reprinted with permission of author and Australian School Library Association (ASLA).


Australian School Library Association and Australian Library and Information Association 2001, Learning for the future, Curriculum Corporation, Australia.

Cavanough, Jill 2003, 'Does DECS hurt its employees on purpose?', AEU (SA Branch) Journal, August 6.

Information is available from:

ACT WorkCover Home Page

WorkCover Authority of New South Wales

Northern Territory Work Health Authority

WorkCover Queensland

New Zealand Department of Labour, Health and Safety section

WorkCover Corporation of South Australia

Workplace Standards Tasmaniav

Victorian WorkCover Authority

Workcover Western Australia