Ergonomics: Reducing Injury, Increasing Productivity

Learn trending material handling solutions that create ideal ergonomic workstations for picking, assembly and storage.

In the material handling world, more injuries occur from workers lifting heavy boxes, which is why it is important to design lifting equipment with ergonomics in mind. In 2011 alone, approximately 3 million workplace injuries were reported by private industry employers to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These injuries have a staggering financial impact upon the operations and facilities where the injury takes place. The National Safety Council states that the average work related injury costs the operation $38,000 in direct costs. The more damaging figure is the indirect cost of the injury to the operation’s output and consequent productivity — $150,000 on average. These costs can easily cripple an operation.

When it comes to the material handling industry, back injuries are one of the most common issues reported by facilities. The American Academy of Orthopedic surgeons estimate that approximately 186 million work days are lost every year due to back pain and injuries alone. These injuries, known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) or ergonomic injuries, can be prevented by implementing solutions that reduce the need for a worker to overexert themselves. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in fact, shows MSDs are twice as common in the warehousing and distribution sector as they are in other private-sector industries.

It is very common for workers to injure themselves by reaching deep into a pallet rack in order to pick a case. If a case is stored on the back of a pallet, workers have to bend and reach, putting strain on the worker’s back. If the case is stored deep within the pallet rack, visibility and reach is compromised and further jeopardizes the worker’s safety when picking a case.

Enter ergonomics, the science of designing the job to fit the worker instead of physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job. By adapting tasks, workstations, tools and equipment to fit the worker, ergonomics seeks to reduce physical stress on a worker’s body and prevent disabling work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

If work tasks and equipment do not include ergonomic principles in their design, workers may be exposed to undue physical stress from vibration, awkward postures, repetitive motion and heavy lifting.

By following these four simple steps, distributors can create a more ergonomic — and productive — distribution operation.

Step 1: Assess Risk Factors

The first step to correcting problems is to understand the key ergonomic risk factors and review work tasks in distribution operations. Occupational safety professionals estimate that reducing physical stresses could eliminate as much as half the serious injuries that happen each year. Predicting what might go wrong and modifying tools and the work environment to make tasks safer for workers is the first step to reducing problems.

Step 2: Control Risk Factors

Engineering controls, administrative controls and personal equipment are the three key ways to control ergonomic risk factors. Adjust work practices and policies to reduce risk factors. Examples include rest breaks, job rotation or training to identify signs of ergonomic stress.

Step 3: Get The Right Equipment

With any task, selecting the right equipment is crucial — and making sure that equipment fits employees’ safety needs can deter injuries. Choosing the right size and height of work surfaces makes for the possibility of an injury occurring. If work tasks and equipment do not include ergonomic principles in their design, workers may be exposed to undue physical stress from vibration, awkward postures, repetitive motion and heavy lifting.

Step 4: Apply Design Principles

The most important principle to keep in mind is that work is handled most efficiently when kept within areas defined as “primary reach zones.” These are the horizontal and vertical areas that a worker can reach with minimal arm, head or trunk movement. Moving away from these primary zones requires more movement, and ultimately more time. Ergonomic workstations keep most work tasks focused within these reach zones — typically within a 24-inch radius of the worker’s body.

Aside from making ergonomic adjustments to workstations while workers are standing in place, it’s also critical to factor in how much a worker needs to move around the warehouse in order to perform industrial tasks. In a distribution or warehousing operation, the most common working concept is “person-to-goods” order picking, which means that order pickers move to storage locations, often pushing or pulling carts and reading orders off paper. These pickers spend significant amounts of time (up to 60 percent) walking between storage, so reducing that time-spent is an excellent idea.

This article was originally published in IMPO's May/June print edition. To view the digital version, click here.