It is difficult to conceive the distance we have traveled in the realm of employee/worker well being. In the United States, our manufacturing and distribution legacy came from Great Britain and the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Our heritage lies in the practices developed and refined in what William Blake ominously referred to as "dark Satanic Mills." Health, safety, and ergonomics were nonissues—at least for the employers. Men, women, and children were expected to put their backs into it, and to be quick about it, as well. Slacking and lollygagging were not tolerated, nor were illness and injury.
What a difference a century makes. Though there will always be holdouts, most employers today realize that it's in their own best interest to keep their employees healthy and safe. Healthy employees are absent less often and are more productive than their sickly counterparts are. They don't drive up health insurance costs, and they tend not to die before their working careers are over.
As part of their efforts to keep those workers healthy, employers nationwide have put measures in place to protect them from harmful materials in the workplace—particles, vapors, chemicals, byproducts, whatever. But they're not stopping there. Many companies, with encouragement from their health care insurers, are actually promoting better preventive and proactive care for their employees' general health, encouraging prevention rather than continuing to blindly pay the price of reactive medical care.
The next step has been to provide wellness programs, sometimes on company time. Such programs often involve movements to influence behaviors that have health implications, such as smoking and substance abuse. Some companies, like PepsiCo, give cash to employees (and spouses) who complete online health risk assessments, with further cash awards for seminar and counseling activities. The smoke-free, drug- and alcohol-free, weapon-free working environment is now a commonplace in American business.
All aspects of supply chain management benefit from contemporary approaches to improved individual health. So what if it's only enlightened self-interest? The movement represents a win/win/win proposition for employers, employees, governments, insurers, families, and eventually for consumers and product/service end-users.
Keep it safe
The rationale for safety programs is constructed in much the same way as it is for health programs. Beyond being simply the right thing to do, protecting your workers from unsafe conditions is just plain smart business. Not only is there a cost associated with having people out because of workplace injuries, but there are also the issues of long-term and short-term disability (and insurance rates), of workers' compensation (and escalating contributions), and, of course, of lawsuits.
Beyond that, there is incredible cost tied up in finding temporary substitutes, or in the ghastly expense of recruiting and training permanent replacements. Then, too, the returning worker may not be able to perform the same tasks, or at the same level, as before.
The field of safety management has generated a cottage industry of specialized consultants, who help organize corporate efforts to maintain safe and accident-free workplaces. Generally, such programs contain plans and streamlined, standardized processes for daily, weekly, monthly, and annual activities for defined areas of safety needs. They typically communicate:
Another aspect of safety deserves mention. When the public is exposed to the effects of impaired workers, or of defective products that result from worker impairment, or of dangerous product content or environmental damage, the exposures are nearly beyond reckoning. It's not merely the PR damage in the marketplace; it's about real money, involving sums with lots of commas.
The nightmarish visions that keep managers up at night tend to center on the extreme scenarios, such as a truck driver who has gone 36 hours without sleep before plowing into a minivan full of kids. Or a substanceimpaired engineer whose locomotive takes out a school bus stalled at a grade-level crossing. But these examples are the outer limits, the kind that grab headlines.More often, the event in question is merely a fire and explosion generated by a mishap with a fuel truck. But whatever the circumstances, mishaps that result from safety gaps in operations can have profound consequences not only for workers and employers, but across the entire supply chain.
Ergonomics and the science of safe practices
Sometimes the lines between health, safety, and ergonomics blur, as when white collar supply chain professionals deal with carpal tunnel issues that result from poorly designed keyboards and workstations. Or when continuous work with a computer monitor affects vision and leads to headaches. Or when chairs fail to provide correct lumbar and other back support— when work surfaces and processes aren't consistent with the human body's long-term capabilities.
We usually first think of ergonomics in its contribution to improved performance and productivity, and that's a legitimate perspective. But ergonomics actually contributes mightily to issues in health and safety, as well. Examples abound throughout the supply chain. One example: a lot of work has gone into making power units in trucking more ergonomically friendly to both long-haul and short-haul transportation. The professional drivers in these rigs need all the relief they can get in their long and kidney-jarring days, as well as during their rest periods.
It is in the distribution center, though, that we can see the most—and most direct— applications of ergonomic designs, particularly for productivity advantage. But it's still enlightened self-interest; an ergonomically friendly workplace will not only yield higher productivity, but will also contribute to the longevity of a high-performance workforce. (We should note here that the late Gene Gagnon, our friend and collaborator—and the father of warehouse productivity management— provided many of the thoughts embedded in this discussion.)
Now, defining ergonomics can be difficult. Some say that ergonomics is the science of designing work methods and tools for maximum human comfort. Others say that good ergonomics is the business of helping people work smarter but not harder. Still others define ergonomics as the arrangement of work so that people will minimize the possibility of excess fatigue or personal injury. In fact, ergonomics involves all three, and more.
In considering the process, you should begin with facility construction but also look at hiring practices and every aspect of the layout. That means looking at buildings, equipment, training, and processes. To justify the necessary investment, weigh the cost of the ergonomics changes against the current cost of job-related injuries.
Authors' note: Next month, we will look more deeply into the benefits of investing in good ergonomic practices and applying those principles in the distribution center.