When you think of uncomfortable situations, a day in a distribution center probably isnt high on the list. Yet muscle strains, repetitive motion injuries and other ergonomic complaints are common occupational hazards for logistics professionals.
In fact, depending on the success and maturity of your safety initiative, repetitive motion may be the single largest cause of injuries in your distribution centers not to mention the most expensive. The question is: Do your safety initiatives acknowledge this? Or do you often hear people within your organization echoing any or all of the following ergonomically erroneous statements?
#1: Its not economically feasible to have an ergonomic awareness program.
Many companies consider ergonomic awareness a luxury rather than a necessity. However, when you consider all of the expenses associated with ergonomically unsafe behaviors, having a proactive initiative makes a lot of fiscal sense. The average ergonomic claim can easily run into thousands of dollars. Or if the injury winds up being especially serious requiring therapy, surgery or significant time off for recovery its not unusual to see a claim that could total more than $100,000. And that doesnt even begin to factor in all of your indirect costs, like those associated with lost productivity or the time it takes to train a temporary or permanent replacement. When you compare this against the cost of launching an ergonomic awareness program (which need not be elaborate to be effective) the potential benefits soon outweigh the potential costs.
And the costs need not be that high. Simple changes to work processes that cost nothing, like having people rotate jobs during the day, can significantly reduce your employees risk for repetitive motion injuries. Behavioral changes, such as re-quiring people to take breaks, can give your employees backs, wrists and necks the rest they need to minimize strain. And physical process changes, like teaching your employees how to bend, lift and move more safely, can make all the difference in the world.
In addition, there are many small improvements you can make to work stations and other areas of your facilities without breaking the bank. The addition of step stools at one of our facilities reduced ergonomically risky overhead lifting to a minimum at that facility (needless to say, we also provided safety training about the proper use of step stools). Creating work tables from unused pallets shrink-wrapped together to increase the lifting height of a table at another facility reduced the need for workers at that table to bend into unnatural positions. So if youre looking for a good reason to avoid investing in ergonomic safety, this isnt it.
#2: Unsafe ergonomic activities cant be that risky.
After all, a lot of us do them and get away with it all the time.Being ergonomically careless without having many injuries to show for it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means your people feel healthy and stay incident-free which is the primary goal of any safety program. On the other hand, it creates a false sense of comfort, because some ergonomic injuries (including carpal tunnel syndrome) take years to develop. And others are the kind that can strike at any time given the proper combination of circumstances.
No matter how free of ergonomic injuries your warehouses have been in the past, never assume that this puts you out of the high-risk zone any more than continuously running red lights without having a crash makes it safe for you to continue ignoring those all-important traffic signals. Chances are, your company has just been lucky, rather than safe.
#3: Its just a muscle strain.
As people get older, they may attribute the aches and pains they experience to the general effects of age, while younger workers may be in the mindset that they are invincible to the pain or suffering related to ergonomic injury. By the same token, employers may believe that a muscle strain is a simple injury that can be relieved with small amounts of pain reliever and rest and that its nothing to be concerned about.
However, the truth is, even seemingly small injuries can turn into long-term convalescences or chronic conditions. Dont underestimate their potential impact on your employees health or your facilities productivity. And dont overlook the very real value of teaching your employees safe lifting, proper phone position and other behaviors designed to help avoid ergonomic injury.
#4: Theres no way my employee or co-worker could have injured her back picking up that lightweight object.
Its human nature to wonder how people can find themselves incapacitated after picking up a lightweight object such as a pen, pencil or piece of paper unless you know that many ergonomic injuries are caused by cumulative activities, not single events. For example, typing away at a keyboard and wielding a tennis racket hardly require extra-human strength, yet each can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow, two of the most well-known repetitive motion injuries.
So if some of your employees injuries seem dubious from a weight-to-strength ratio, perhaps youre dealing with repetitive motion injuries (albeit ones that have taken years or even decades to develop) rather than people who are exaggerating about the extent of their pain. Keep this in mind as you proceed with ergonomic training because many little things and the day-after-day activities can add up to loss, pain and suffering.
#5: Repetitive motion is all about rapid, constant movement.
Activities like typing or working on product pick lines are classic examples of repetitive motion activities that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and similar injuries. However, a person doesnt have to perform an activity thousands of times a day in order for it to be considered repetitive. Any activity someone performs over a period of many years such as picking up boxes or hauling cardboard to the trash area is also a repetitive motion, and as such, it carries its own measure of cumulative risk. With that in mind, make sure your company takes a whole-body approach to dealing with repetitive motion exposure.
#6: We know all about ergonomics. Weve heard it before.
In many ways, ergonomics seems like moms apple pie: Its basic recipe has been around for ages, and almost everyone agrees its a good thing. However, like safety itself, its a subject you cant visit too often. Even though many of its tenets havent changed since reforms following the industrial revolution, they can be easily forgotten. Stick with your commitment to proactive ergonomic training with simple, consistent messages, and continue to show you care with quality frontline programs.
#7: Ergonomic injuries are just part of a days work especially in a field such as ours.
No credible organization knowingly condones unsafe behaviors. But each time your company fails to recognize unsafe ergonomic conditions and hold employees accountable for unsafe ergonomic behaviors be it lifting too much, lifting improperly or twisting in an unnatural way you are essentially granting permission to repeat those behaviors. Your managers, supervisors and employees must understand that each time they ignore at-risk ergonomic conditions and behaviors, they are statistically more likely to cause themselves some eventual pain or suffering. And thats not a comfortable situation for anyone.
Dixie Brock is the National Warehouse Safety Manager for APL Logistics, one of the worlds largest providers of global supply chain management services. Rosario Rizzo is Vice President, Logistics