Warehouses are busy places. In the rush to get things done, it’s far too easy to overlook areas and systems that may lead to worker injury.
One-third of work-related injuries are currently caused by sprains or strains from “overexertion,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And small changes to warehouse organization — along with the use of some proven tools — can dramatically improve worker safety and comfort.
Eric Wenzel, Field Sales Director of Shipping and Packing Supplies for Staples, explains how companies are finding substantial safety gains by creating ergonomically sound warehouses. Here are a few key tactics.
Poor posture, awkward movements and repetitive lifting lead to employee injuries. A shift in where and how you store products can reduce the number of potentially injury-inducing motions your staff must make in a day.
“At a packing workbench, try to keep your most commonly used products at around eye level to minimize movements,” Wenzel says. “Items that aren’t accessed as often present less risk of injury and can still be stored on your high and low shelves.”
Likewise, keep objects’ weight and size in mind when you consider where to put them — avoid placing heavier objects below waist-level so that workers have to strain to lift them, for instance.
Wenzel recommends identifying areas of potential worker fatigue and determining whether some useful tools might be available to help. Think about all the motions your employees do throughout the day, he advises. Say your organization packs with bubble wrap, for example: A bubble wrap dispenser, at eye level, instantly makes it easier for people to tear the film without reaching to the floor.
These small changes can reduce or eliminate repetitive movements that might cause carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries. Other helpful assists include tilt shelves, ladders, step stools, pickers, pallet jacks, fork trucks and scissor lifts.
Some packing machinery that benefits workers also makes for a good business investment, Wenzel adds. “If you purchased a stretch wrapper or a tape machine, what else could your employees accomplish if they weren’t stretch wrapping or taping boxes all day?” That type of investment could improve your throughput and lower lead times.
The physical nature of warehouse work means fatigue is a major hinderance to both safety and productivity. When people are tired, they tend to slouch or otherwise sacrifice form, which in turn makes them susceptible to potential injuries.
Examine your shipping materials to see if you should swap them out for safer or easier-to-use options. For example, Wenzel says if your workers are using conventional film to stretch-wrap a pallet, switching to lighter pre-stretched film can reduce worker fatigue.
A Focus on Flow
In many cases, reorganizing your warehouse floor can be the best way to protect your employees. “Evaluate how much employees have to move around to pick, pack, scan, weigh, label and route products,” Wenzel says. “Excessive effort to travel between stages can mean workers are more likely to become fatigued.”
Seek to group related tasks and develop a logistic and support flow based on a common sequence of tasks. Doing so can also boost productivity since workers won’t have to spend as much time navigating the floor to complete a process. Workstations, where staffers routinely complete wrapping or other tasks, also need ergonomic consideration.
“Workstations are often makeshift — a rolling cart pushed up against a desk — which may not be the best approach,” Wenzel explains. “Thought should be given to how people will stand at the station and how they will access the supplies they need without strain.”
Regularly scheduled trainings on proper inventory-handling techniques can help to ensure proper form is upheld over time. The emphasis with training should be on protecting workers, not squeezing more productivity out of them. Since bad habits die hard, you may need to repeat these trainings over time.
Displaying posters illustrating the right safety measures throughout your warehouse can also help. As part of your training, encourage employees to practice common movement patterns, such as picking up larger items. Also, teach basic stretching exercises that can help prevent strain and relieve pain.
Launching new processes or investing in new materials may sound daunting, but small changes over time can enable you to reach your goals. With the cost of worker injuries totaling $60 million last year, according to Liberty Mutual Insurance, investing in safety measures is not only good for your employees’ well-being, but also your bottom line.