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Why Does Material Handling Lead to So Many Injuries?

Dec. 6, 2016
The need for speed is causing workers to do their jobs quickly, not necessarily safely.

Every seven seconds a worker is injured on the job.

If you do the math, that works out to 4.7 million injuries a year. And a high percentage, 32%, can be attributed to material handling.

Of those injuries, 35% were due to overexertion as a result of lifting or lowering, or repetitive movements. Colliding with equipment accounted for another 25% of the injuries, and 25% were the results of slips, trips and falls.

These are serious statistics and what's frustrating is that there does not seem to be a way to fix this, according to Jim Galante, who is chairman of the EASE (Ergonomics Assist Systems and Equipment) Council of MHI. By day Galante is director of business development at Southworth Products, which manufactures ergonomic material handling equipment for vertical lifting and work positioning. But he spends a lot of time educating the industry about how to reduce injuries.

"The training we've done over the past 30 years on safer methods to perform a variety of jobs has had no effect on the number of back injuries or lost time injuries," Galante explains.

The reason for this rather startling conclusion is that people do their jobs the fastest way they can. "They twist their bodies and bend in ways that aren't ergonomically correct, all in the effort to perform their jobs more quickly," Galante says.

And the personnel that are doing these jobs present challenges to the industry as well. The workforce is not all that healthy. Galante points out that today one-third of the U.S. population is obese, which was not the case 25 years ago.

Add to that the age of the workforce. While you might think that warehouse and production floor work is being done by younger people, that's not the case, says Galante. The younger generation is not interested in these difficult and physically demanding jobs.

Examining the larger economic issues, the increase in freight volume due to e-commerce is adding more pressure—literally—on warehouse workers. "There are a lot of serious issues and they won't go away anytime soon," notes Galante.

But he's not discouraged and so he travels the country spreading the word about how companies can prevent injuries. One obvious method is to use robots to perform particularly stressful tasks. Many companies are doing this and it is reducing injuries, but this solution also presents some problems, such as the limitation of tasks. While robots can be programmed to handle a specific task, they lack the flexibility of humans and often that is what is needed.

Another issue is that of cost. Galante cites an example where one robot can replace four workers (who will hopefully be redeployed in other areas). While this sounds cost-effective, the company now needs to hire a more highly-skilled (i.e., expensive) worker to maintain the robot. And if that robot goes down, production will stop; there aren't other employees who can jump into that job. "Viewing it that way, employers find automation scary and expensive and therefore are moving into it very slowly," Galante observes.

Technology offers some solutions as well. Equipment is available that can be used—both on the production line and in the warehouse—that assists employees with leveling loads as well as moving things around in a more ergonomic manner.  

"When determining which technology might make the best investment, I tell companies to look at the productivity gain," Galante says. "If a piece of equipment can help an employee load a pallet 40% faster, the gains in productivity will enable a quick ROI on the equipment. Using this justification, a company can get the right equipment for their employees and reduce injury."

And this brings us back to the concept that employees will do what they need to keep up the speed. With the right help, that's ergonomically correct, it's possible to work faster and safer.

About the Author

Adrienne Selko | Senior Editor

 As Senior Editor for MH&L  Adrienne covers workforce, leadership and technology. 

She also manages IndustryWeek’s Expansion Management, exploring how successful manufacturers leverage location to gain competitive advantage. Her coverage includes the strategies behind why companies located their headquarters, research institutes, factories, warehouse and distribution centers and other facilities where they did, and how they benefit from the decision.

In the past, Adrienne has managed IndustryWeek’s award-winning website, overseeing eNewsletters, webinars, and contributed content. 

Adrienne received a bachelor’s of business administration from the University of Michigan.

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