Lightening the Load: Warehouse Workers and Ergonomics

Engineering controls, process changes and conditioning can reduce injuries, eliminate production delays and reduce health care and workers' compensation costs in the warehouse industry.

Kevin A. Quaid walked into a warehouse and knew he was looking at a disaster waiting to happen. Quaid, a CSP and CPE who's a senior consultant with Aon Risk Consultants in Seattle, watched as employees at the facility pulled boxes weighing 50 pounds off a tractor-trailer and stacked them onto a pallet. Employees continued to stack boxes until they were standing on their "tippy toes" to place them on the pallet, Quaid remembers. Much to his amazement, they continued to stack boxes until the last ones added to the 9-foot stack had to be tossed on the top.

"Space was limited, and that's the message that came down from management," Quaid says, "so employees thought they were doing the right thing by stacking the pallets higher [than was safe] to save space."

Based on Quaid's advice, the company instituted a policy that the maximum pallet height should not go above 6 feet. "That's still high -- not ideal -- but sometimes having boxes between knee height and shoulder height is not feasible when a company has space limitations," he admits.

Back injuries and injuries related to bending and lifting are probably the No. 1 safety issue in warehouses, he says, with slips and falls coming in a close second.

Claim frequency and the cost of injury claims can be devastating to a warehouse operation. Generally, Quaid points out, "the profit margin of warehouse operations is so little that a couple of costly claims can eliminate any profit. Tons of materials have to be moved to make a profit." One claim can wipe out hours, even weeks, of work.

When weighed against the human and financial devastation musculoskeletal injuries can cause, engineering controls, process change and proper training seem a small price to pay, he says.

The Human Factor

Wanted: Workers willing to bend, lift and twist. Must be able to manually lift and move heavy (50-plus pounds), awkward packages.

If you are the safety manager at a warehousing operation, that could be the unofficial job description for employees at your facility. All that bending, lifting and twisting lead to one thing: injuries.

Kent Wilson, director of ergonomics for Ergodyne, St. Paul, Minn., notes that manual handling jobs place shoulders, backs, knees, wrists, necks and ankles at risk. They also contribute to worker fatigue, which can cause an employee to stumble, shift a load or lose a load he or she is carrying. It can also lead to slips, trips and falls, Wilson says.

Research from a study conducted for OSHA several years ago found that 65 percent of all injured warehouse workers were manually lifting, carrying or handling materials at the time of their injuries.

"In an ergonomic nirvana, everything is automated, but we're not going to go there," Wilson admits. "There are always going to be people lifting and bending. Every time you have a human being lifting something, there's risk."

At Ace Hardware's Yakima, Wash., retail support center, 250 workers lift, shift and shuffle some 62,000 products. "Our antenna goes up very quickly [over ergonomic issues] because we're a distribution center," says Telara McCullough, human resource manager at the facility. "Some 40 [percent] to 45 percent of our injuries are musculoskeletal."

The national lost workday incident rate for private industry is 3.0 lost cases per 100 workers. The lost workday incident rate for the SIC code that includes warehouse workers is 5.1 per 100 workers, according to the most recent numbers available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It does not have to be that way.

Engineering Controls Pay Off

Ergonomics has been part of the safety process at Aurora Packing since 1985. Management at the company, a food processor headquartered in North Aurora, Ill., with a large warehouse operation, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on engineering controls. The investment has reaped rewards for the company, says Michael J. Fagel, Ph.D., CEM, corporate director of safety and security.

At Aurora Packing, management installed conveyor belts to make moving products from one location to another easier and installed lift tables at a number of work stations so employees do not have to lift up boxes or bend down to place them on the ground again. The company has also installed hydraulic lifts and mechanical pulleys, like those found in some automotive plants, and has revamped production lines to eliminate some of the bending and lifting.

"Re-engineering never stops" at Aurora Packing, Fagel says, and probably will not as long as the company keeps seeing results. The lost workday rate at Aurora Packing is approximately one-third of the average for its industry.

While engineering controls are effective at eliminating employee exposure to risk, process changes can go a long way in eliminating or reducing injuries.

Improving the Process

Every time a worker moves a product, there's the risk of injury. Reduce the number of times employees touch the products and you will probably reduce the number of injuries.

"The ideal situation would be one-touch," Wilson says. "Touch the product once when it comes in and once when it leaves."

Aon's Quaid says he has visited warehouse facilities where products are moved a number of times before they are shipped out. "What kind of value are you adding by moving that product around?" he wonders. "You're adding to the cost of doing business, not only by risking employee injuries and the costs associated with them, but by using employee time to shift products around."

In its attempts to reduce injuries, Ace Hardware examined that issue. Management took a look at how vendors delivered their products to the facility. Originally, Ace received shipments in individual boxes and containers. Workers unloading the trucks had to handle every box.

"Receiving was the worst job in the warehouse," says Bob Pasek, regional manager. "We couldn't hire and keep people in this job. By the time you did that six hours a day, week after week, you wanted out."

So Ace began asking vendors to place merchandise on skids or pallets so that, in most cases, forklifts could be used to unload trucks. Ace began to bundle its outbound shipments the same way. Not only were injuries reduced, the unloading process went from taking several hours to taking about 20 minutes.

While not every company has the clout with vendors of an Ace Hardware, even smaller companies can examine their operations and make process changes to eliminate or reduce hazards. In addition, the changes do not have to cost thousands of dollars.

Quaid worked with one transportation company where employees had to pick heavy products from pallets closest to the aisle. Rather than have employees reach into the pallets to try to grab products from the back or walk into the racks, the company assigned an employee to rotate the pallets 180 degrees as products were cleared off one side. The cost to the company was minimal because an existing employee was reassigned to the task.

JSAs Pinpoint Problems

At International Truck and Engine Corp.'s 11 Parts Distribution Organization locations around the country, employees, supervisors, safety supervisors and safety committee members conduct job safety analyses (JSAs) and hazard assessments for all the jobs at the locations. They examine job tasks and identify hazards related to each job. Their goal is to improve the work process and make it safer.

For example, if a job task is unloading a pallet, hazards include the need to bend down to floor level, pick a product off the pallet, and stand and twist to place the product on a shelf. The addition of a lift table to raise and lower products, a suggestion made as part of a JSA, has eliminated back injuries among employees performing that job.

Another JSA at one of the company's facilities found that axle housings -- heavy parts each weighing 35 to 40 pounds -- were stored on the ground. Employees moving the parts had to wrestle with them and pull skids around to get at some of the parts. To counter the hazard, the company purchased cantilevered racks so that employees driving lift trucks can do the job.

The JSAs are reviewed every month at employee safety meetings, says John M. Altman, CSP, the company's manager of operations, environment and safety. Through changes instituted as a result of the JSAs, the company has reduced its injury frequency rate by approximately 70 percent and its lost-time rate by 60 percent since November 1998.

The investments in engineering controls and changes in work processes do not come cheap for companies such as Aurora Packing, Ace Hardware and International Truck and Engine, so management buy-in is essential.

"This commitment goes all the way up to the president of the company," Altman acknowledges. "A lift table can cost between $3,000 and $5,000, but it pays to invest in the equipment. The payoff is obvious. The cost of one back injury -- direct and indirect -- can build up and amount to a lot of money."

While management buy-in is key to the success of an ergonomics program at any warehouse, employee buy-in is crucial.

Communication with Employees

"Communication is key" to achieving employee buy-in, Fagel says. "If we're in the safety business, we're in the people business, so listen to them."

Ergonomic programs succeed because management approaches employees to find out what they want and need to do their jobs more safely and efficiently, Ergodyne's Wilson says.

"In the warehouse industry, there is a real attitude that 'we've always done it that way,'" he reveals. "Employees have to get out of that mindset, out of that institutionalized, cultural bias toward doing things one way."

Communication, of which training is a part, can overcome that bias, experts agree.

"Human beings don't like change," Wilson points out. "It causes fear and consternation. If you get employee buy-in and make changes part of their decision-making process -- things they choose to do -- then [the ergonomic improvements] will be more palatable for everyone to accept."

Almost every one of the many engineering controls instituted at Aurora, Fagel says, has come out of discussions that included the employees doing that job task. "Employees know [what needs to be done]," he stresses. "They spend eight hours a day doing that job."

To spend eight hours a day doing their jobs, they must be prepared mentally and physically.

Employee Fitness

Each work shift at Aurora begins with an exercise program developed by Dr. Graham Woodward, an occupational health physician who works closely with the company; Laura Dhom, a bilingual physical therapist; and company nurse Norma Pennington. They analyzed all the job tasks in the company to determine the best warm-up activities for employees.

"Football and baseball players stretch before they go out on the field," Fagel says. "So should employees."

The exercise program includes stretching fingers, rotating shoulders, twisting the trunk from side to side, stretching back and leg muscles, and generally warming up the muscles

to get them ready for working. Employees perform their stretches while they are on the clock. It is part of their jobs, Fagel says, so they are paid for the time.

New hires receive education in ergonomics and body mechanics along with safety. Training is offered in two languages because the employee population is evenly divided between Spanish- and English-speaking workers.

Management at International Truck and Engine has also worked with an occupational health physician and physical therapist to develop lifting requirements for jobs and to conduct awareness training for employees. Safety meetings, held once a month or once a quarter, depending on the facility, include information about body mechanics, lifting and stretching. Following an employee suggestion, the company's Dallas facility invited a physical therapist and ergonomist to a safety meeting one month to discuss ergonomics.

Fagel and Altman agree that a good ergonomics program benefits from a close relationship with an occupational health provider or clinic. The physician or provider learns about the facility, the job tasks and work environment, and can help not only in the development of ergonomics training and conditioning, but in the development of a restricted-duty program to return injured employees back to work as quickly and safely as possible.

At International Truck and Engine, several locations have worked closely with occupational physicians to develop a work-hardening program that has become part of the hiring process. A pre-employment physical tests potential employees to ensure that they can meet lifting requirements. They perform job tasks and lift loads like those they'll find in the warehouse. The exercise has resulted in some potential employees deciding that the job is more than they can handle.

"It really helps screen out employees who have come in with bad backs or who have no idea what they're capable of lifting. Before the work-hardening program, we've had cases where employees were only with us a week or two before they hurt their backs. Whether that was the result of a pre-existing condition or not, we have no way of knowing," Altman admits.

Ace Hardware's Yakima facility has also instituted a stretching program before each shift and has set aside an area of shelves to use as a training space to show employees how to properly handle merchandise. Supervisors at the Yakima facility do new employee safety training one-on-one rather than in groups.

New employees are taught how to stock the shelves using proper bending, grasping and lifting techniques and real products. For instance, instead of grabbing a heavy water-heater carton and wrestling it off the shelf, employees are shown how to tip the carton and lower it onto a cart.

If longtime employees start complaining of pain or a pattern of injuries emerges, Ace management renews their safety training. McCullough says that ongoing training is a vital part of the company's plan for continued success in injury prevention and reduction.

Musculoskeletal injuries are disabling and costly, acknowledges McCullough, adding, "If you want to be a competitive employer in the marketplace today, you need to offer a good job and a safe job." Attention to warehouse ergonomics is an important element in achieving such a work environment.

Sandy Smith is a contributing editor to Occupational Hazards magazine. She is a former senior editor at OH and former managing editor of Web site Safety

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