Watch Your Back!

The comfortable truth about warehouse ergonomics ...

Andy Brousseau, APL Logistics
Andy Brousseau, APL Logistics

Mention the term “distribution center (DC) accident,” and the first thing that comes to mind is probably a forklift or truck. However, add the word “common” and it’s a different story.

“Statistically speaking, 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.

Supply & Demand Chain Executive recently sat down with Brousseau, whose company has had an ergonomic safety program in place since 2005, to discuss why businesses need to better familiarize employees with this potentially uncomfortable subject.

In what ways does ergonomics pertain to DC workers?

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

And no matter how free of ergonomic injuries a warehouse may be 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 because you 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 that big of a worry?

Some ergonomic injuries may seem minor. However, they can be highly uncomfortable. Plus, just because an ergonomic injury appears to be a no-harm-no-foul incident when it happens, evidence suggests it could turn into a more serious injury later.

The average ergonomic claim can easily total thousands of dollars. And if an ergonomic injury is especially serious—requiring therapy, surgery or significant time off—it could cost many times that amount.

Was that 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. But as our program and employees’ safety consciousness matured, those injuries became far less frequent. And by the early 2000s, unsafe ergonomic behaviors became 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 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (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.

What changes in work processes and workstations can make a big difference?

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 tall 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 behaviors are easy for companies to correct. These include awkward and static postures, unsafe lifting movements and highly repetitive motions.

What did your company do to address these behaviors?

Several years ago, employees at one of our facilities were having to lift their arms over their heads to unload trucks with non-palletized cargo. A couple of step stools put these employees more level with the cargo, and helped 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.

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 for these workers.

How did these changes affect productivity?

Companies are often concerned that placing too much attention on ergonomic issues may 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.

How can you convince corporate leadership to move an ergonomic initiative forward?
When people say their companies can’t afford to invest in a more concerted ergonomic safety effort, I always say they can’t afford not to. If they really examine the number, type and cost of claims associated with ergonomic injuries, they are likely to 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, it can reduce ergonomic risk by making the changes I outlined.

Having an ergonomic safety initiative is 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?

Andy Brousseau is senior manager of global safety, security and environment for APL Logistics, an international supply chain specialist serving companies across the globe. The company provides a comprehensive range of services via a global network covering all major markets with a multinational workforce of approximately 7,000 people. APL Logistics is a member of the Kintetsu World Express.