There will always be some who dismiss ergonomics as a fraud, claiming there's no scientific evidence linking repetitive stress in the workplace to injuries. By the same token, most biker bars house a resident scholar disputing the harmful effects of smoking.
But the truth is, you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain from implementing a sound ergonomics program in your warehouse or DC.
To begin with, a good program can reduce operating costs. At a time when the average medical care cost for a back injury is $30,000, reducing accident rates can help lower an operation's health insurance and workers' compensation expenses—or at least keep them from rising too quickly. That can go a long way toward mitigating the continuing upward cost pressures felt throughout the supply chain.
But perhaps an even more powerful motivator for instituting good ergonomic practices might be the potential to boost productivity. When the physical effort to do the job is reduced, the workforce is more productive. When you arrange the workplace in a manner that reduces fatigue, your people will produce the same amount of work with less effort, or more work with the same effort. Therefore, they will move more units or pounds of cargo each day with no increase in work hours, and no degradation in performance and quality.
There are a number of practical steps you can take to improve operational ergonomics. For example, you can make it a standard practice to position each loaded pallet on top of two empty pallets rather than have it sit directly on the floor. That puts the cases on the loaded pallet eight to 12 inches higher than they would otherwise be. This reduces the risk of strain from leaning or bending down to the floor to pick up the lowest case.
Sequence order picking to reduce walking, and wasted time and motion. If order picking is done in a "Z" pattern, the picker selects from one side of the aisle and then immediately selects from across the aisle, cutting down on the distance traveled. Other nonconventional sequences can deliver similar benefits.
Try rotating jobs. Switching workers' jobs every few hours has at least three advantages: First, it allows workers to perform different tasks and minimizes the possibility that repetitive motion will cause injury. Second, it allows each worker to cross-train and develop new skills. Third, it reduces boredom on the job, which can lead to quality and safety issues.
Job-related injury is closely related to fatigue. Be sure to design tasks for micro breaks, and train workers to use these breaks to avoid fatigue and to plan ahead. Workers should stop moving periodically to study the remaining work and consider the best way to get the job done. In other words, they should have the opportunity and time to learn how to work smarter, not harder.
Uncontrolled overtime creates fatigue and contributes to injuries and accidents. Even planned and controlled overtime can yield diminishing returns and incur similar risks. If your operation relies heavily on overtime, consider revisiting your scheduling practices or using part-time workers to reduce your dependence on overtime work.
Avoid conditions that cause awkward or strained situations in the manual handling of goods. Twisting causes the worst strain, and it is particularly dangerous if it's done while lifting or handling cartons. Watch out for situations that require the worker to stoop or to reach overhead while handling heavy cases. And remember that the jury is still out regarding the efficacy of back braces. Whether they work or not, they are no substitute for good ergonomics.
Arrange stock in the warehouse to avoid an unnecessary amount of awkward motion. The fastest movers should always be stored in the "golden zone," which extends from the belt height to the shoulder height of the average individual. Items within this zone can be grabbed and moved without either stretching or bending. While it is obviously impossible to put everything in the golden zone, at least the fastest-moving stock should be in this area. Special consideration should also be given to the location of oversized and/or overweight SKUs, even when they aren't the fastest movers.
When drafting an ergonomics program, keep in mind that there are five limiting parameters to consider in manual handling:
Training and fitness
Have all of your order pickers been taught the best way to select product without wasted motion or undue fatigue? Are your supervisors sensitive to ergonomics so they know how to correct workers who are not following the best procedure? Training is absolutely essential, both for workers and supervisors.
Documentation is also important. Some companies use a methods checklist for order picking. The checklist is both a training tool and a defense document if a company is cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Exercise can be as important as training in the prevention of injuries on the job. Some warehouses—even entire companies—use aerobic exercises as part of the daily routine. In one case that we've observed, management and office personnel as well as workers attend the exercise session, and 100 percent participation is expected. Such programs are open to all, on a voluntary basis, in many companies today.
Finally, keep in mind that proper slotting is an essential element of improved ergonomics. However, it is achieved only when the putaway function is controlled so that the fastest movers are always in the golden zone(s). Many of the warehouse management systems on the market today have the capability to control the putaway function, and yet we still see too many warehouses where location of inbound material is not well-controlled. A complicating factor is that the population of "A" and "B" items may change frequently, and re-slotting can be hard work. But it must be done; the payoff is significant—and so are the risks of not doing it.
There is a natural tendency for private sector managers to resist what they see as meddling on the part of government regulators. However, supply chain managers should not resist ergonomics efforts—they should promote them. Preventing injuries and improving productivity is good for every business. Management should be an advocate for ergonomics, not because an OSHA inspector is watching, but because it will improve operations—usually at little cost.
Occasionally, there are federal inspectors who are working from guidebooks and have little or no practical warehouse experience. If your management and your trade association are proactive in collaborating with OSHA to develop ergonomics guidelines, you should be able to avoid conflict with the inspector or citations for sub-standard ergonomic conditions.
Nobody really wants injuries or unsafe working practices. Good ergonomics is a terrific way to avoid both. Health, safety, and ergonomics can be life-changing in a corporation's organizational experience. They are major factors in quality performance, operational productivity, and profitability— whether they are recognized as such or not.