Retailers and wholesalers are putting out the embers of workers' compensation claims before those fires begin to rage by aggressively pursuing ergonomic programs in every area of operations.
Preventive measures are being taken to ensure safe workplace practices in the store, the administrative offices and the warehouse. Though the approaches in each area vary widely, they share a common thread in that they are fortified by an emphasis on awareness.
Educating staff about the nature and incidence of job-related injuries has led to safer practices -- and dramatic drops in both compensation claims and insurance premiums at Erickson's Diversified Corp., Hudson, Wis.
"We attribute this not so much to training as to increased awareness, particularly at the store level. Our store directors know exactly who has claims, how much they are and what those claims cost," said Amy Boris, director of training.
"They are much more aware of how things should be done. If someone is doing something incorrectly, they are more apt to correct that employee, based on their awareness of what a claim could cost," she added.
The more frequently employed measures to prevent injuries on the job include:
At the front end, ergonomically designed checkstands -- some of which are designed specifically for either right-handed or left-handed scanning -- are gaining a foothold with retailers like Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, and Erickson's Diversified.
In the warehouse, many retailers are pushing for their suppliers to reduce case weights, but others are going further than that. Big Bear Stores, Columbus, Ohio, observes and videotapes warehouse activity and links that information with worker's compensation claims to help identify problem areas and troublesome patterns.
In the office, a vast array of accessories are being used to prevent injury, especially those resulting from repetitive movement. At Raley's Supermarkets and its Bel Air Markets division, both based in West Sacramento, Calif., foot rests, document holders and glare screens for computers are all readily available; while at Hy-Vee, office workers may be outfitted with headsets to eliminate stress caused by telephones cradled between the head and shoulders.
Regardless of which operational area the ergonomic program focuses on, each requires thorough training, follow-through and accountability on the part of all employees, executive said.
At Raley's, a comprehensive training program was implemented for computer operators, said Michael Barrett, director, risk management and benefits.
In anticipation of government-imposed workplace regulations -- such as an ordinance that recently passed in San Francisco -- Raley's is focused on communicating safe work practices.
"We anticipate these regulations might be adopted statewide. Our training educates employees about taking breaks, proper posture, worksite adjustments, signs and symptoms of repetitive motion injury," Barrett said.
In addition to providing ergonomic office accessories, such as wrist rests, Raley's assigns a video-display professional to each department to train, offer technical advice and assist in obtaining workstation adjustments, he said.
The chain's most recent program is the Raley's Physical Observation and Coaching Program for the front end, Barrett said.
"This program encompasses training of checkers in the proper way to scan and check groceries. It demonstrates proper scanning procedures and personal body mechanics, such as the best way to grasp items or how to lift small and heavy items," he said.
"We are looking at proper work habits, such as how to unload items from the shopping cart, how to position items prior to scanning, how to move items through the scan zone. We are also reviewing keying in items and bagging," he said.
Following the initial training, the program provides for quarterly observation of the employee's work habits.
Big Bear Stores also monitors activity, particularly in the warehouse, to identify and correct risky work practices.
"Back injuries are one of our biggest problems," said Wes Yohey, safety manager at Big Bear. He also serves as the ergonomics team leader.
One of Big Bear's current projects involves videotaping warehouse employees to determine how much weight and stress they can handle. To ease that burden, Big Bear has asked vendors to reduce the weight of some cases, which weigh 60 and 70 pounds.
"I also want to form a new committee to address these issues. For example, if we are unable to get vendors to reduce the weight on some of their heavier products, maybe we can address that in a different way. Maybe we can install something to help employees with lift work in an unused area of the warehouse," he said.
Hy-Vee aims to prevent warehouse-worker injury well before anyone is placed at risk -- even before they are hired, in fact.
Upon being offered a job in the warehouse, employees are sent to a local hospital where they are examined to confirm they are physically capable of performing the tasks. "This is not part of the application process, but is a contingency prior to hiring," said Ruth Mitchell, director of communications.
The prescreening, combined with training videos addressing proper equipment usage and proper procedures in order selection and loading and unloading trucks, is credited with reducing workers' compensation claims and worker injuries, she noted.
Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, plans to focus mainly on preventing back and shoulder injuries in the warehouse as well as administrative offices, said Steve Stein, manager of environmental health and safety.
"We are looking at a couple of different training options. We are constantly making small changes in our equipment. For example, we are in the process of changing our computer keyboards and upgrading our workstations in the headquarters office," Stein said.
The front-end operations, particularly scanning, are being scrutinized by retailers who want to ensure the highest levels of safety.
At Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co., Akron, Ohio, scanners that can read bar codes from several angles were installed in nearly all of its stores. The improved technology enhances scan rates so cashiers need not make as many passes to capture the bar code, said Claudia Todd, manager, workers' compensation department.
"As a result, we have seen a significant decrease in new carpal tunnel syndrome claims. The new claims we do see tend to be from our meat cutters, most often those who have 20 to 30 years of service," Todd said.
Hy-Vee is also in the process of modifying the front end for better ergonomics. Checkstands are reconfigured to reduce the amount of turning and twisting by the cashier while encouraging more face-to-face contact with the customer, Mitchell said.
Meanwhile at Erickson's, a store being built this year in Faribault, Minn., will have new checkstands, half of which will be designed for right-handed scanning and the other half for left-handed scanning, Boris said. Also, they will be angled at the end to be more ergonomically correct and to reduce repetitive stress.
Repetitive motion disorders can also occur in administrative offices and Hy-Vee is looking to eliminate that risk. The chain may purchase headsets for office employees who spend much of their time on the phone, and hand or wrist rests for those who type on computers for extended periods, said Mitchell.
"In our computer-support area, we have people doing technical-support work who spend a lot of time on the phone, talking and writing. Often those people balance the phone between head and shoulder, which can result in ear, neck and shoulder problems. We haven't heard much about that type of injury, but we want to keep it from happening," she said.