PHILADELPHIA -- Meat department workman's compensation claims and other personal injuries at Pathmark Stores dropped after the chain convinced suppliers to use lighter box/case weights, and started using ergonomically redesigned preparation equipment, said Peter Telesco, vice president, perishables of the Woodbridge, N.J.-based chain.
Telesco, speaking at a conference on trade issues at the American Meat Institute's annual convention here, said lighter boxes and case shipments, and updated wrapping and grinding equipment have also boosted back-room efficiency and worker morale, during the year and a half the changes have been in effect.
Telesco said the retailer took action on the issue after OSHA and union officials voice repeated concerns about case weights that workers were lifting at the Pathmark warehouse for dry and perishables (which closed three years ago). In some cases, they weighed as much 90 pounds, he said.
"[OSHA and union representatives] said the sizes weren't easy to handle, although these were the [industry standard] case weights for years for ground beef, flank steaks, skirt steaks and pork loins," he recalled. "They said, 'we aren't going to allow you to bring in weights of this nature.' Our work force was getting older and so we started contacting vendors and going over these issues."
When officials of the 133-store chain began holding discussions with vendors on lower case weights, "nobody really wanted to address issues involving making changes in equipment and case sizes," said the retailer.
He said suppliers eventually responded, and that over a two-and-a-half year span, shipping cases began showing up at the dock that in some instances were half their original weights, or less.
Today, Pathmark is embarked on expanding the program. In produce, it is trying to reduce case weights of 45-to-60 pound celery units to about 30 pounds, and lighten 45-to-60 pound units of lettuce, and reduce apples containers to smaller than the current 50 pounds and over average.
"It's a win-win situation for retailers and suppliers, since [vendor] employees are also more productive [handling lighter weights]," said the Pathmark executive.
"We have to keep working all the time no matter what the items are to make handling easier and simpler," Telesco emphasized, pointing out that from a merchandising aspect smaller cases aren't opened as often as smaller cases which extends freshness.
According to Telesco, perishables suppliers "are starting to become more responsive in this area. There's a big difference between an 80- and 40-pound box; and large, cumbersome boxes that can fall over become a safety hazard," he asserted.
The chain plans to continue to press vendors in this regard. "It's not like just because we fixed ground beef, pork loins and flank steaks, that we're going to stop. We still have to look at taking other 40-pound cases down smaller, if that's feasible," he said.
On the equipment side, Telesco said becoming proactive with suppliers -- rather than reactive -- has enabled Pathmark to benefit from advances in back-room processing equipment that cuts the amount of bending and back, neck and arm movements by the meat department work force.
Even though Pathmark "has had the same [type] Hobart grinder-blender for 38 years, it's been modified over time with a larger motor and other changes," Telesco explained. "But the way it's worked hasn't changed and meant a lot of bending, and hurt back, neck and arms for workers handling 2,000 to 3,000 packages a day."
Faced with this situation, Pathmark tested a prototype of a redesigned grinder-blender at a store for five and a half months, and found that it eliminated the need to bend during processing stages. As a result, there was a reduction in meat-room employees fatigue, sick days and workmen's compensation, he added.
The chain intends "to roll this equipment out to all new and renovated stores," Telesco told SN after his talk at the meeting. He said the new devices use less back-room space and cost about the same as the existing equipment.
Pathmark is also about to begin a one-store test of a new prototype automatic weighing/ wrapping machine that requires less handling of trayed products, with fewer body movements and no bending.
Telesco told the session that while retailers generally are more knowledgeable about merchandising, "suppliers are the experts on equipment. Yet each of us doesn't seem to take the time to get together and share our [mutual] expertise."
He said cooperation between food chains and suppliers is crucial, and sharing this expertise allows both to become more profitable and move the business forward.
Another aspect of the seminar examined the progress made by AMI's uniform code council, which is working on technology that would reduce the size of UPC symbols on meat-case packages. The goal is to reduce the size to one-half inch long by one-quarter inch high, from the current standard, one and one-half inch long by three-quarters of an inch tall, said Mark Boyer, partner in PMG, Tyler, Texas, another speaker at the session.
He said reducing UPC-symbol space on packages for meat, produce and other perishables will have important implications on food retailers.
"We're working on a much smaller symbology for UPC which is significant for a retailer. [For example,] when selling lamb chops you don't want to fill the packaging up with a giant-sized UPC that covers most of the meat," he said.
Beyond that, Boyer said the committee is also working up a new composite reduced space code, that will be of the same reduced size and also uses two-dimensional symbology, which can contain up to 48 characters embedded in the Universal Product Code.
"If you're selling a product that is time sensitive, the labeling can show the price, product identification and origin, and expiration and manufacture dates," Boyer said.
An AMI committee has started polling retailers, manufacturers and growers around the nation to begin working with the Uniform Code Council on developing a pilot project, which Boyer expects to be ready for testing sometime next year.
"You can imagine the magnitude of going from a linear symbology, which everybody's bar code scanners read now, to a two-dimensional symbology which will require a migration to all new bar code reading equipment," he said.
Others speakers were Phil Kafarakis, vice president, sales and marketing, Jones Dairy Farm; John Murphy, president, John Murphy Consulting, and Karen Ribler, president, KJR Consulting.