More and more wholesalers are being asked to make their warehouses ergonomically sound, yet lack adequate guidelines to do so.
Safety investigations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are increasing in number and depth, and the spotlight falls not just on work-related accidents, but on a workplace's potential for hazards and ergonomic issues.
"It's something we're going to have to live with," said Douglas Hartley, project engineer at Supervalu, Minneapolis. "Right now OSHA is out there and they have nothing to do but come in and make sure your workplace is safe for our employees."
A focus on ergonomic issues relating to environmental design and employee activities has become evident, Hartley said.
"OSHA's going to look for 'cumulative trauma disorders': activities repeated often by a susceptible person," said Eugene Gagnon, chief executive officer of Gagnon & Associates, Minnetonka, Minn. "If a box falls on somebody, that's a one-time deal. I think we as an industry can correct those things. Now we have to look into what causes these disorders."
Although a federal bill
giving wider powers to OSHA stalled this year, and the election of a pro-business Republican Congress spells a probable end to further expansions, OSHA is stepping up investigations of the grocery industry.
"They actually said to us, 'We don't care what it costs,' " Hartley said of an encounter Supervalu had with a state division of OSHA. "They said, 'We're going to make you the safest industry in the state and we don't care if you have to build a 10,000-mile pickline.' And they meant it. That was scary."
OSHA has promised to begin developing standards and publishing reports, but in the meantime wholesalers have relied on speculation of industry analysts to guide their plans.
"I don't know if OSHA understands [the guidelines] are what most of us are waiting for," Gagnon said. "When we find out what they want, we can start responding to that. A lot of people right now are shooting in the dark.
"OSHA is forcing employers to devise safety measures without any precise rules, but expects companies to know what to do," he added. "I've heard about ergonomics for four years and there still is no definitive rule that says, 'If you do this you're going to be in trouble, but you can do that.' "
Wholesalers need to take the issue into their own hands and design their work environment and labor standards based on common sense, said Hartley and other speakers during a presentation at the Productivity Conference sponsored this fall by the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association/International Foodservice Distributors Association, Falls Church, Va.
Hartley and Gagnon recommended several areas where a wholesaler could improve workplace conditions:
· More accurate, intensive record-keeping: "Employers are going to have to list all their [potentially hazardous] jobs and fill out a scoring sheet for each job," Gagnon said. "If you find you're above a score you'll have to keep a record on that job. An OSHA inspector is definitely going to ask you for this scoring sheet."
Hartley said Supervalu, while defending a case brought by OSHA, compiled a package of data analyses, worker surveys and logs. "We said, 'We're going to maintain these logs and these analyses, and we will be continually doing surveys."
· Better work procedures: One practice Gagnon said must be eliminated is employees twisting their bodies to load pallets. "We cannot have people going into a slot, bending over, picking up that case and backing out," he said.
"If you want to make it easier for employees and not have them crippled after 20 years, then they have to be able to pick up that case, bring it to their body and just make two or three steps," Gagnon said. · Labor standards: Employees need to be uniformly trained in how to work in an ergonomically safe way. "We need to do a lot more [standardizing] in slotting," Gagnon said. "I'll see 15 people in selection doing the same job with 10 different ways of doing it. We've got to have it grilled into these people's minds: These are things we're going to do to be ergonomically sound in our warehouse."
· Rotating jobs: Perhaps one of the best ways to ensure employee safety is simply not to have them work as many hours at the same job. "If you can rotate that selecter's job every two hours where he's in a department where he doesn't have to handle product, it makes sense," he said.
Gagnon encouraged wholesalers to add more part-time workers and keep overtime to an absolute minimum.
"What if a selecter worked only four hours? You're going to cut all of your problems in half," he said. "That may mean more training, and it's a cost to the employer, but that is one of the answers."
Supervalu said one of its Minnesota divisions, which was investigated this year by a state branch of OSHA, took such an approach and negotiated a lesser fine.
The investigation was sparked by warehouse employees disgruntled by a new set of work requirements, Hartley said.
"Some of the order selecters felt these standards were unfair," Hartley said. "Before they had it much easier in terms of the cases per hour and weight per hour required, and they decided they were going to call the state offices to see if there was something they could do about these standards."
State officials visited the warehouse and interviewed employees. On subsequent visits they videotaped the order selection process and requested logs, records and data analyses. "They wanted to see everything we had on injuries," he said.
The result was a sizable fine, Hartley said. "After about nine months the state presented us with a citation issued under the general duty clause that said our facility was 'not free of recognized hazards.' "That is their way of letting you know you do not have an ergonomically sound warehouse," he said. "They don't generally tell you what's wrong. They want to make sure you look through everything and correct as much as you can."
According to Hartley, OSHA wants wholesalers to acknowledge potential hazards and take preventative actions. "As long as you recognize there is a potential problem and are doing something to address it, they will work with you and not be as harsh as if you were oblivious to the fact there was a problem.
"We told [the state department of OSHA] we'd be maintaining these logs, and doing everything necessary to create a safe environment for the employees," Hartley said. "They accepted it and reduced the fine to a very small amount.
"They come in and start talking all these big numbers, millions of dollars in fines, but once they see you're recognizing the problem, I'm sure you'll come out as successful as we have." Hartley did not disclose the amount of the fine Supervalu eventually paid.