With materials handling, driving out inefficiencies has been top of mind for both retailers and wholesalers. Technology applications coupled with advancements in equipment have contributed to improved performance while stripping costs out of the distribution channel. Technology applications coupled with advancements in equipment have contributed to improved performance while stripping costs out of the distribution channel.
Now, however, materials-handling executives are focusing on ergonomics issues as the next big industry hurdle in this area.
While ergonomics-related injuries are cited as costing warehouse operators billions of dollars in lost labor and insurance premiums, industry leaders point to steady gains in reducing repetitive-trauma injuries and muscular-skeletal disorders.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, repetitive-trauma injuries have decreased 27% for supermarket retailers and 19% for wholesalers over a 10-year period.
Despite these gains, though, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently issued a proposal that has supermarket executives rallying in opposition. This opposition is spurred by the anticipated costs associated with the OSHA proposal should it become law and require re-engineering of facilities throughout the distribution channel.
Industry observers predict the OSHA proposal would cost grocery-wholesaler and food-distribution companies $26 billion in the first year and $6 billion annually thereafter. That cost is projected on the assumption that fewer than 10% of these companies would be forced to completely retool or rebuild their warehouse facilities to comply with the proposed OSHA requirements. The OSHA predicts that the change in regulation would cost the industry $4.2 billion.
The proposed rule, released in late November, would require employers to provide work spaces and equipment suited to the specific needs of each individual doing a job requiring "manual handling," such as those on assembly lines or at other jobs requiring repetitive motions or lifting.
Industry experts predict that, should this rule become law, ergonomic programs would have to be set up for more than 3.5 million jobs in the supermarket industry.
Food-industry representatives have sharply criticized the proposed regulations and warned the high costs would be detrimental to distributors. To further the case against the proposal, the Food Marketing Institute requested a 180-day extension for comments, while the National Coalition on Ergonomics, which represents the FMI, Food Distributors International and the National Association of Manufacturers, asked for a 120-day extension.
"The proposed rule is one of the most fundamentally misguided and ill-conceived rules ever proposed by any regulatory agency," said Timothy M. Hammonds, chief executive officer and president of the FMI. "It is unbelievably broad in scope and, at the same time, incredibly vague in specifics."
The OSHA did extend the public-comment period, but only by one month, with industry officials reporting that still was not enough time. According to the agency, the extension was made to "accommodate the large number of requests for extra time to prepare submissions."
Hearings on the proposed standard, originally scheduled to begin in late February, were slated to begin March 13 and extend into the second week in April in Washington, Chicago or Portland, Ore.
"The food distribution industry does not need OSHA to tell it how to run its warehouses safely," said Kevin Burke, vice president of government relations for the FDI.
"Our members are spending millions to prevent injuries to their employees. They understand the cost, both in terms of compensation claims and productivity, and in human terms as well. OSHA already has sufficient power to enforce work-safety requirements. This additional regulation would be devastating to our industry, the economy, and to American consumers who would be forced to pay the bill."
The political war wages on as materials-handling executives continue to evaluate ergonomics and develop voluntary measures to reduce both the hard and soft dollars that injuries cost.
Retailers and wholesalers report that the costs of getting and keeping employees are factored in to their warehouse operations. In addition, technology and equipment advancements have contributed not only to efficiencies but also to employee safety.
"Keeping people on the job is paramount," said one Western operator, who asked not to be named.
"Good training is a foundation. But updating and reinforcing correct methods of moving materials is the only way to have people keep themselves safe, uninjured and returning to work the next day. the source added."
Distributors report that they have shifted methods of materials handling within the warehouse to ease ergonomic stress.
At Laural Grocery, London, Ky., for example, the warehouse has been reconfigured employing flow racks.
"This keeps our handlers from the stress of pulling and tugging," said Lloyd Fleenor, vice president of warehouse operations.
The wholesaler has also converted to selling heavier items by the pallet and installed automatic wrapping machines to wrap pallets. Both moves have not only helped with ergonomics, but also increased efficiencies at the warehouse. "Keeping our employees safe on the job is our top priority," said Fleenor.
"People have focused on occupational and health issues instead of productivity and product quality," noted Steve Johnson, an industrial engineering professor at the University of Arkansas.
Johnson said that good ergonomics should result from the continuous examination of employee work habits and elimination of those things likely to cause problems, such as extra movement, twisting, bending, repetitive motions and a combination of movements simultaneously.
Any reduction in movement not only reduces potential injury, but makes work more efficient, thereby increasing productivity, he said.