Watch Your Back!

The comfortable truth about warehouse ergonomics.

Andy Brousseau 2 57d6ddd83f049

Mention the term “DC accident” and the first thing that comes to mind will probably be a forklift or truck.

However, add the word “common,” and it’s a different story.

“Statistically speaking many warehouse employees are far more likely to sustain back, muscle, repetitive motion or other ergonomic injuries than they are to experience other kinds of work-related injuries,” says Andy Brousseau, senior manager of global safety, security and environment at APL Logistics.

Food Logistics recently sat down with Brousseau, whose company has had a concerted ergonomic safety program in place since 2005, to discuss why businesses need to do a better job of familiarizing their employees with this potentially uncomfortable subject. 

Let’s start by putting the topic of ergonomics into context for warehousing professionals.

It’s easy to assume that ergonomics only applies to carpal tunnel and sedentary desk jobs, because that’s usually what people hear the most about. But in reality, ergonomics is the science of how people physically interact with the various elements of any job’s settings and demands–whether that job is in an office, behind a wheel or on a warehouse floor.

What are some of the most common ways ergonomics pertains to DC workers?

The typical distribution center (DC) job is ripe with opportunities for making a sudden or wrong move, or putting too much stress on a muscle or joint, all of which can lead to ergonomic injury. For example, highly routine activities such as removing shrink-wrap from pallets and unloading trucks with non-palletized cargo create plenty of chances for people to strain their backs, necks or shoulders. So can improperly lifting heavy boxes. And pick lines could easily give computer terminals a run for their money in terms of their potential for repetitive motion injuries.

All of these things make an ergonomic safety emphasis in DCs not just important, but essential.

Even for warehouses that haven’t had high rates of ergonomic injury?

Having a low rate of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-recordable incidents in any area of operation doesn’t necessarily mean a facility is truly safe or protected. It could just mean it’s been lucky.

No matter how free of ergonomic injuries a company’s warehouse has been in the past, it can never be assumed that this puts it at less risk for future ergonomic injuries. That’s akin to thinking that just because you’ve successfully sped through several red lights without getting into a wreck, you can keep doing it and remain accident-free.

Why is an occasional strained shoulder or back really that big of a worry in the overall scheme of things?

Some ergonomic injuries might seem to be minor. However, they still can be highly uncomfortable, as any of us who have ever been sidelined because of one can attest. Plus, just because an ergonomic injury appears to be a “no harm, no foul” incident when it happens, a lot of evidence suggests that it could turn into a more serious injury later as the injured person’s body attempts to compensate for the initial damage.

It’s also important to note that the average ergonomic claim can easily total thousands of dollars. And if an ergonomic injury winds up being especially serious--requiring therapy, surgery or significant time off for recovery–it could ultimately cost many times that amount. In fact, depending on how mature a company’s warehouse safety program is, ergonomic injuries might actually be the largest cause of its workers’ compensation payouts.

Has that been the experience for your company? 

Definitely. When we first launched our more proactive safety initiative in 1994, our primary focus was educating our employees about the dangers of life-and-limb-threatening behavior such as improper industrial equipment operation, because these injuries were among our most common and expensive–not to mention the most potentially dangerous, much like they are for many companies. But as our program and employees’ safety consciousness matured, those injuries became far less frequent. And by the early 2000s, unsafe ergonomic behaviors had become the No. 1 source of both our on-the-job injuries and injury-related expenses. In fact, before we launched our ergonomic awareness program. they were responsible for 40 percent of our OSHA recordable injuries and 56 percent of our related costs.

So when our workers’ compensation insurer offered to help us develop some new safety training courses on the risk factor of our choice, we chose ergonomics.

How receptive were your employees to this kind of training? Did they take it to heart? Or did they consider ergonomic concerns to be much ado about nothing?

Actually, it was a really easy sell, because we were able to provide them with a lot of solid proof that an ergonomic injury could very easily happen to any of them–and point out that many of them might already have sustained one or more of these injuries at some point in their lives, even if they didn’t think of it in those terms.

We also shared real numbers about the kinds of ergonomic injuries people who work in their field have sustained.

So would it be safe to say that it’s important for companies to make sure their DC employees fully understand that ergonomic risk is a reality rather than a hypothetical concern?

Absolutely. But it’s even more important to demonstrate that it really isn’t that difficult to protect themselves from most ergonomic injuries–and that in many cases even a few minor changes in work processes or work stations can make some hugely positive differences.

Will you provide some examples of those minor changes?

Before I do, I need to offer a caveat: Ergonomics isn’t a one-size-fits-all science. Often, you have to consider the age, height, weight and health history of people when determining what’s ergonomically right or risky for them. For example, a work table height that’s ergonomically ideal for a 5-foot-2-inch woman performing sub-assembly isn’t going to be an equally good fit for a man who’s considerably taller.

That said, there are certain kinds of behaviors and conditions that are ergonomically risky no matter who performs them–and these are the behaviors it’s especially easy for companies to correct. These include awkward and static postures, unsafe lifting movements and highly repetitive motions.

So what kinds of things has your company done to address these behaviors over the life of its program? 

Obviously, it would take us a lot more time than we have to discuss all of them, so I’ll focus on just a few that might be the easiest for your readers to replicate.

Several years ago, employees at one of our facilities were routinely having to lift their arms over their heads to unload trucks with non-palletized cargo. A couple of step stools that put these employees more level with the cargo helped substantially reduce their risk for neck, back and shoulder strains.

During that same time period, we visited and trained the staff at another one of our facilities where there was a lot of piecework being done. By educating staff members about how important it was to take breaks from this work in order to give their hands and wrists a rest, we were able to significantly reduce their chances of getting repetitive motion injuries. And just in case they were tempted to ignore our messaging, we also made these rests mandatory.

And at another facility, where the employees do a lot of order picking, we introduced the concept of job rotation and changing positions to different levels of the pick line. This played a key role in reducing the ergonomic strain on those professionals’ various muscle groups.

How did these changes affect productivity?

Companies are often concerned that placing too much attention on ergonomic issues will slow things down. But the truth is we didn’t see a loss of productivity when we began emphasizing ergonomic safety. We just saw a significant reduction in our related injuries and claims costs.

In fact, after years of eating, sleeping and breathing the subject at our DCs, we’re pretty well convinced that companies that elect to forgo ergonomic safety awareness because of productivity concerns may actually wind up being less, rather than more, productive. At the end of the day, the after-effects of a sudden motion, such as a quick twist or bend, can negatively affect people’s work performance for far longer than the time they supposedly saved by not moving more carefully.

As we close, can you give our readers a few talking points that they might be able to take to their corporate leadership to help move an ergonomic initiative forward?

When people say their company can’t afford to invest in a more concerted ergonomic safety effort, I always say, they can’t afford not to. If they really start to examine the number, type and cost of claims associated with ergonomic injuries–a data-driven approach I highly recommend--they’ll probably discover that it makes excellent business sense.

Plus, it’s amazing how affordable many ergonomic safety initiatives can be. While your company may not be able to build and equip an ergonomically ideal facility from the ground up–at least not right now–it can dramatically reduce ergonomic risk via many of the kinds of changes I’ve outlined.

On a final note, having an ergonomic safety initiative is quite simply the right thing to do if you truly care about your workforce. After all, who wants their employees to be able to say their jobs are a pain in the neck and really mean it?