Anything But A Pain In The Neck

When people broach the subject of warehouse safety, they're usually speaking in terms of lift trucks or other heavy equipment. Yet statistically speaking, the professionals who work in your DCs are far more likely to sustain on-the-job injuries like strained backs, pulled muscles or carpal tunnel syndrome than they are to be involved in a heavy equipment accident. And when they do, it could result in a world of physical and financial pain.

That's why ergonomic awareness should be an essential component of every company's warehouse safety training — and why no one can afford to get too comfortable with any of the following erroneous attitudes.

“Why worry about ergonomics? An occasional strained shoulder or back isn't a big deal.”

It's easy to assume that emphasizing ergonomic safety is akin to “majoring in the minors,” because a lot of ergonomic injuries seem relatively benign — especially at first. But before you jump to that conclusion, look carefully at your company's worker's compensation data.

That data will probably show you that the cost associated with even a simple ergonomic injury is often quite substantial. In fact, it may lead to the discovery that ergonomic injuries are the largest source of your company's on-the-job injuries and related expenses.

Plus, although ergonomic injuries may not be as potentially disastrous as industrial equipment accidents, they can be a highly painful chapter in the lives of the people they happen to. Even minor ones can and often do wind up contributing to serious related injuries later on as the body compensates for the initial damage; the injury development truly can be like a house of cards.

“Ergonomics is for desk jobs, not warehouses.”

Ever since the advent of widespread computer use, there's been more attention paid to helping employees avoid repetitive motion injuries. But true ergonomic safety involves far more than just cautious keyboarding and goes far beyond keeping only office employees protected.

In fact, the typical warehouse actually involves far more ergonomic risks than the average office, including activities such as removing shrink-wrap from pallets, lifting and loading boxes onto racks, working a pick station, and packing and sealing boxes. As a result, it's all the more important to have a safety program that addresses them.

“Ergonomic injuries go with the territory.”

Warehouses tend to be very active, highly manual environments, so it's easy to see why strains, sprains and other injuries take place within them so often.

But don't confuse frequency with inevitability.

Granted, some ergonomic injuries are going to happen in even the safest of warehouses. (Just ask one of the many warehouses that would have been able to celebrate a million safe man hours worked without an OSHA-recordable incident if it weren't for one such mishap.)

However when it comes to safety, there's never a good reason for giving people permission to fail — especially when there are so many easy and effective ways to help them succeed.

“Our company is already proactive about ergonomics; we've invested in some ergonomically excellent equipment.”

Thinking that your company's warehouse employees are safe from ergonomic harm simply because you've invested in state-of-the-art equipment is like assuming all skydivers are safe simply because they have parachutes.

Unless they know how to use these products properly — and make it a point to use them properly each time — they are still at heightened risk for injury.

Like it or not, your employees' brains will always be the most important piece of safety equipment around, which is why investing in ergonomic training and awareness will always be some of the best money your company spends.

“We don't have the money for an ergonomic safety push right now.”

Many ergonomic solutions are anything but expensive.

Simple process changes like having employees rotate tasks can significantly chip away at their risk for repetitive motion injuries. Basic behavioral changes such as taking more frequent work breaks can give people's wrists, necks, backs and shoulders most of the rest they need to minimize strain. And even small additions to work areas — like increasing work table heights — can yield huge protective advantages.

“We've never worried about ergonomics before, and it hasn't hurt anyone. Why start now?”

Companies often cite a lack of injury when justifying the absence of a proactive ergonomic safety effort. If your company is one of them, consider this: You've probably just been really lucky rather than exceptionally safe.

Some ergonomic injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome happen over a long period of time, so your company probably isn't going to actually “see” them occur or know about them until after they start to give your employees problems.

And an injury-free record is no guarantee of anything — except that it will probably breed two of the unsafest attitudes of all: false confidence and complacency.

Just as repeatedly running red lights without having a crash doesn't mean it's safe for you to keep doing so, repeatedly engaging in ergonomically risky behavior without injury is never a guarantee that you'll continue to be as fortunate in the future.

“Ergonomics will bore our employees.”

Although ergonomics may sound like an esoteric topic, the way you train your employees about it doesn't have to be. There are a lot of ways to bring this subject down-to-earth and close-to-home.

For example, we always get a huge show of hands when we ask our employees who are being trained if any of them have ever pulled their backs or had a muscle strain. (It's a vivid reminder of just how common these injuries are and why it behooves them to listen and learn.) We have no trouble keeping people's attention when we begin to share real-life stories of how minor ergonomic injuries have turned into extended convalescences. And we never fail to elicit a few raised eyebrows when we share concrete numbers about the kinds of ergonomic injuries people have sustained doing jobs exactly like theirs.

Perhaps most important of all, we've always gotten a great deal of positive response when we've demonstrated how a few minor changes can yield some wonderful results that will actually improve their comfort level and quality of life.

When you put ergonomics in terms of avoiding pain and suffering and emphasize the whole comfort and quality of life angle, it tends to resonate.

“Ergonomics only applies to on-the-job activity.”

One of the things we've noticed when we review our facilities' safety performance is that some of our safest locations — the ones that have often gone years without a single incident — tend to stress personal as well as professional safety. If your company wants to keep its employees as healthy as possible, it needs to quickly dispel the myth that ergonomic caution begins and ends at work.

Whether they knit, play tennis, carry toddlers around, make a sudden movement while doing yard work or spend hours playing Guitar Hero, your employees are faced with numerous opportunities to harm their muscles and joints during their personal time.

At the very least, the injuries they incur after hours could spill over into their work life, diminishing their productivity and increasing their absenteeism. At the very worst, it would add to your worker's compensation claims, because your employees may wind up mistakenly attributing their discomfort to something they've done on the job rather than at home.

“What's in it for us?”

As safety professionals, we never like to hear any discussion of ergonomics come down to ROI, because having a proactive training program in place is simply the right thing to do.

That said, if our experience is any indication, any ergonomic awareness program your company invests in will probably more than pay for itself in terms of increased productivity, fewer missed days of work and considerably fewer overall claims. Not only that, it will have the healthy benefit of sending more employees home at the end of their shift in the same healthy condition as when they arrived.

Marty Gordon is director of risk management and Dixie Brock is national warehouse safety manager for APL Logistics, one of the world's largest providers of warehousing and other supply chain management services. The company's average annual warehouse injury rate is approximately 62 percent below the national average. Visit www.apllogistics.com.

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