May 5 2010 11:21 AM

    Make a trip to any type of store, and you will find goods that have traveled great distances, not only from the other side of the country, but also from all corners of the world. Without a doubt, the success of our economy is, to a great extent, a result from our ability to move goods over great distances. Indeed, we have built a great infrastructure to support the movement of goods such as an extensive highway system and a network of railroads that span the whole continent, all connecting a network of distribution points and warehouses located closely to the major consumer markets. 

    But behind those shiny aisles of consumer goods at our favorite retailers lies a world fraught with danger and injuries for warehouse and loading dock workers. Chemical spills, forklift accidents, slips and falls on wet surfaces are some common hazards listed by many workers, but the one peril that the workers always mention is back pain.

    This is not a figment of their imagination, according to National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2007, seven out of every 100 warehouse and storage workers suffered an on-the-job injury. Beyond back strain, warehouse and loading dock workers are beset by a whole range of other musculoskeletal injuries, including pulled muscles, pinched nerves, strains and sprains. Continuous reaching for, twisting, bending, lifting of, and carrying even relatively small items of average weight open up the very real likelihood of causing cumulative strain and chronic discomfort. 

    The cost to the distribution industry collectively runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually when all factors have been included: Workman’s Compensation, insurance claims, lost time and productivity, employee replacement, litigation and regulatory costs. Furthermore, as back and shoulder injuries tend not to heal as quickly, “insurance related carrying costs” tend to be long term. With the US administration’s inclination to impose new OSHA regulations, there is a renewed urgency by the industry to reduce on-the-job injuries. As such, many in the logistics industry have taken a proactive approach to reduce the number and severity of injuries suffered by their warehouse and loading dock workers.

    An Incomplete Solution
    OSHA lists several potential hazards that can occur in a warehouse or distribution center environment and provides a number of remedies. Not unexpectedly, many of the solutions presented by OSHA involve modifying the environment or implementing a standardized technical safety measures such as raising rack levels, for example. But warehouses require efficient use of available floor space, and the use of multilayer racks cannot be abandoned. 

    For years, employee safety training programs have been available through companies like Dupont (STOP—Safety Training Observation Program), Safety Performance Solutions, BST (Behavioral Science Technologies), Liberty Mutual, Aubrey Daniels International, Self Audit Initiative (dated 90s approach to safety training), containment loss control or return to work programs and Chubb Insurance. However well meaning in their intent to mitigate and prevent injury and financial losses, many of these programs fall short by design.

    Some of these programs use a passive approach to safety awareness by hanging “be safe” posters or reminder message boards reporting “x number of days without injury.” Classroom training or “show and tell” training is another passive approach using video or PowerPoint presentations or live demonstrations by industrial hygiene technicians. These demonstrations tend to be “one size fits all,” generically designed for multiple industries. Companies may use incentive systems whereby employees are rewarded with a bonus for remaining injury free, while others use disincentives or punishment, such as assigning employees to tasks that are undesirable or passing them over for promotions. Reward and punishment schemes accomplish nothing more than superficial improvements in company safety records. The injuries still occur; they just go unreported. Another approach is to “blame the worker” and label anyone who sustains an injury as an unsafe worker. In the end, these companies suffer from low employee morale and disloyalty, often resulting in high turnover rates or expensive litigation when the worker is no longer able to perform his duties in the required capacity.

    Most ergonomics training programs offer little to no hands-on professional development training and do not address the actual work performance demands of high risk to injury workers and their environmentally changing work arenas. Watching without doing does not “physically” transfer the knowledge. The only way that the employee can effectively learn safe behavior is by actually experiencing it firsthand. 

    “Imprinted” Biomechanics — Specialized for the Supply Chain 
    To be truly effective, employee training programs must be interactive and experiential in nature, while tailored to the employee’s daily work environment. The trainer must provide the employee personal feedback, clarifying why a certain movement is wrong and then allowing the correct movement to be experienced. This is similar to the training of a professional athlete. With coaching and training, the athlete is expected to respond correctly to any given situation for his chosen sport. As in a high-risk work environment, the opponent’s next move cannot be foreseen, and yet a professional athlete will spontaneously know the muscle ‘feeling’ of how to react while maintaining optimum stability. There is internal biofeedback stating what ‘feels’ correct. With diaphragmatic breath control, this autonomic biofeedback creates body behaviors that become “imprinted,” enabling the body to reflexively and constantly respond to work performance demands safely and effectively. As with a professional athlete, this experience matures with minimum follow up for the career of the employee.

    With correct reflexive body behaviors in place, a labor-intensive employee such as a warehouse worker is much better equipped to meet performance demands when facing the constantly changing size, weight and shifting of loads, along with the ongoing performance demands of the time and productivity-driven work arena. This enables the individual to transform the constantly changing performance demand from a vulnerable and weakening experience to a self-strengthening one. 
    This system matures with minimum follow-up to become part of the employee workforce culture. And the results of creating a safe employee work culture are: a significant reduction in the number of Workers’ Compensation claims and dollar losses, a dramatic drop in lost time hours and increased productivity through employee professional development. 

    A New Delivery Method for the Supply Chain Industries
    But even the most effective injury prevention program has limited impact when outside training consultants come by once or twice a year to teach the program. New workers are constantly hired, and waiting for months without providing them with the proper safety training could be expensive if they suffer an injury in the meantime. Injuries do not have grace periods. Also, all warehouse employees at risk need to be trained, not only the select few workers that can be made available at that particular seminar date, time and location. It is impractical to shut down all warehouse operations even for a few hours to allow all employees to take the training at the same time. And even if that were a possibility, it would make it virtually impossible to provide one-on-one training. And what about those operations that are geographically separated? 

    The program needs to be offered on a continuous basis and encompass all warehouse and dock workers. It must also be taught by people who are familiar with the way the company does business. Ideally, the organization must absorb the safety technologies internally. One way to do so is a licensing model where company employees could be trained as “facilitators” who can then impart the safety “technologies” to other employees in the organization. Even though the organization does not “own” the safety technologies, licensing an established program permits it to bring the program in-house. This ensures the organization access to the safety program on a continuous basis, is able to deliver the know how to all the employees at all locations and can do so immediately when a new group of workers is hired. 

    Sustainable Workforces 
    In this millennium of need for sustainable workforces, the supply chain and distribution sector will remain an essential infrastructure industry. It becomes apparent that with the high risk to injury nature of this work arena, certain professional development is essential. If we as an industrialized society, with exceptional health care issues and costs in infrastructure work arenas very dependent on the human element, do not act intelligently to protect and preserve the well-being of these necessarily sustainable workforces, the expense to employers and the workers that do the work rapidly becomes an unacceptable burden on society as a whole.

    Jack S. Kanner is the Chief Executive Officer, PSR Corporation. Programs developed by Mr. Kanner have successfully been applied in the US for over 25 years across a wide spectrum of government agencies and private industry. Amy Evans has been a senior clinical research consultant specialist and distinguished FDA regulations compliance monitor to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry for upwards of 20 years. PSR Corporation is a national risk management company incorporated in California in 1984. PSR is specialized in preventing human capital losses in labor intensive and other industries with high risk to injury losses. Contact 415-388-2393, or psr@usa.netfor more information.