One of the questions we're frequently asked is whether it is better to push or pull carts, hand trucks, racks, etc. The answer is...it depends.
For a majority of the processes, pushing is preferred. A meta-analysis of the research on pushing/pulling shows that, as humans, we are capable of safely generating more force when pushing, rather than pulling. This is due to the postures experienced while pushing and muscle recruitment. This is situation-dependent, though.
Pushing allows the person to see where they are going, but if the load "gets away" from them, especially while pushing the load up a steep incline, there is the possibility of the person being struck by the load. Pulling a load while twisted and with the shoulder extended allows the person to see where they are going and will reduce the possibility of the person being struck if the load "gets away" from them, especially while pulling the load up a steep incline, but increases the potential/severity for/of injury to the shoulder and lumbar spine by generating excessive forces while in a biomechanically disadvantageous position.
Putting theory into practice... Try pushing a hand cart weighted to 100 lbs. up and over a curb, or up a few stairs. Now try pulling the same cart up and over a curb, or up a few stairs. You'll notice that pulling the hand cart was easier. This is due to the pulling requiring a lift of the hand truck while simultaneously applying a horizontal and vertical (diagonal) force. The lifting of the hand truck while simultaneously applying the diagonal force decreased the amount of friction of the item on the surface, thereby making the pulling task more energy-efficient/appropriate for this task.
In conclusion, pushing a load is usually preferable, but there are instances in which pulling is the better option. The choice depends on the surface angle, coefficient of friction, the load/load distribution, type of manual material handling equipment, and obstacles (to name a few). There may be instances where it is best to begin pushing the load and then alternate between pushing and pulling...or vice versa...
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