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Ergonomics and its effect on distribution globally

General distribution center ergonomics safety trends

In traditional warehouses, manual order picking subjects the human body to strenuous, repetitive tasks, including twisting, bending, reaching and lifting. This puts warehouse staff at constant risk of injury—not to mention potential long-term damages due to years of prolonged physical stress.

The International Labour Organization estimates worldwide that 340 million occupational accidents happen each year, with an additional 160 million workers experiencing a work-related illness, including Musculoskeletal Diseases (MSDs). According to Canada’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “approximately one in every four Canadians whose jobs involved manual material handling experience pain due to a back injury.”  

With ergonomics in mind, many industrialized nations have gradually implemented directives and regulations designed to protect warehouse workers from injury. 

  • The European Union (EU) created Directive 90/269/EEC that “lays down minimum health and safety requirements for the manual handling of loads where there is a risk particularly of back injury to workers.” Although the EU’s directives are not law, individual EU states are encouraged to pass legislation enforcing this directive. 
  • The United States has legislation dating back to 1970 with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and it continues to develop regulations such as the Ergonomics Program Standard. The EPS lays out expectations, procedures, and estimated costs for companies.
  • Canada put forth a set of health and safety regulations in 2011, and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety advises, “Where possible, use mechanical aids.” 
  • Japan’s 13th Occupational Safety and Health Program, issued by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, lays out a five year plan to reduce occupational accidents and promote healthy workplaces. 

Globally, the growing trend is that it will ultimately be up to employers to eliminate or reduce safety risks in the workplace and protect the well-being of their employees. Simply training employees on how to properly lift, carry, and stack is no longer sufficient as a means to combat occupational hazards. 

Automate to protect your staff

While regulation can improve ergonomic conditions, technology in the way of automation can also be a big help. Automated solutions can take over the majority of order picking and fulfillment, limiting human intervention to supervision of operations, release of orders, selection of order picking sequence, transport planning, managing product shortages and maintenance. When people do need to step in, it is usually only for products with special handling instructions. This alleviates staff from consistent forceful repetition, strained postures, and physical exertion. In fact, by automating, Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, Inc.® was able to eliminate the inherent safety risks in manual fulfillment on top of reducing its man hours by 30 percent.

In facilities that store and retrieve goods in plastic crates, totes, trays or baskets, an automated crate picking solution is ideal. Using a simple, overhead design, the solution stores bins under a gantry-style robot and quickly retrieves products as order lines require fulfillment. Such a solution is modular and provides dense storage and retrieval, enabling scalability as a business grows. Completely contained, it requires no labor intervention for order fulfillment.

Safe and financially sound

An automated warehouse presents not only ergonomic improvements, but also saves companies money by increasing efficiency and reducing costs. With the right equipment, wasted motions are eliminated, maximizing movement and optimizing efficiency. Facilities can better keep up with increased product demand and order numbers during peak periods. A safer workplace also means less worker compensation costs, liability costs, and potential litigation costs. According to the National Safety Council, “for every dollar in direct costs, indirect costs could be as much as $2.12.” The mutual benefits of ergonomic considerations are clear.

In today’s high-demand world, safe products handling is essential for success. Automated solutions, including order picking systems, conveyer systems and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), can not only eliminate ergonomic hazards for workers, but also optimize efficiency within distribution. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are numerous options available today. Conducting a risk assessment to identify current dangers to employees—and how automation can help—is a place to start.

Author Jarno Honkanen

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