ERGONOMICS IN MOTION

With an eye toward reducing injuries caused by repetitive motion and stretching by employees, a growing number of retailers are installing ergonomically improved equipment at the checkout.The enhanced checkstand equipment is being installed largely because of concern about repetitive stress injury and carpal tunnel syndrome -- two wrist-related maladies that can occur when reaching, scanning, writing,

With an eye toward reducing injuries caused by repetitive motion and stretching by employees, a growing number of retailers are installing ergonomically improved equipment at the checkout.

The enhanced checkstand equipment is being installed largely because of concern about repetitive stress injury and carpal tunnel syndrome -- two wrist-related maladies that can occur when reaching, scanning, writing, bagging and other frequently repeated tasks at the checkout are performed.

As a result of increased attention to the frequency of these injuries and their impact on worker productivity and labor costs, retailers are paying much more attention to a new generation of

checkstand equipment. "We are aware of the problem of repetitive stress injuries and are looking into a number of possible causes and solutions. One of [the solutions] is improved checkstand design. We are exploring what might be the best design in terms of minimizing all the possible ergonomic injuries associated with scanning," said Sue Kunstmann, spokeswoman for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.

Mickey Clerc, vice president and director of advertising at Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., also said growing awareness of the problem of ergonomics is leading the chain to take steps to help avoid any possible injuries at the checkout.

"We have been keeping up with the technology and have made changes. Our new stores employ the best [ergonomic checkstand] design available as far as what is needed. We believe we are employing the best systems and procedures as far as what is known at this time," Clerc said.

The move to enhanced checkout designs is not only taking place at the chain level. Smaller independent operators are also taking the leap to bring on ergonomically improved equipment.

When Steele's Markets, Fort Collins, Colo., built a new store last year, it integrated ergonomic checkstand-planning into the initial store design. "We worked with a local hospital that suggested we flip-flop the checkstands so that half of them face right and half of them face left," said Russ Kates, controller.

"Now, when we make out the week's work schedule for our front end, we alternate the employees so that they spend one day at one type of register and one day on another," he said.

As a result of the system, the new store has about half the incidents of carpal tunnel syndrome as in other stores, Kates said.

Worker injuries related to repetitive motion clearly is a growing area of concern, industry observers said.

Michael Gorshe, executive director of food industry programs at Andersen Consulting, Chicago, and former director of store operations at Kroger Co., Cincinnati, said the injuries are resulting in skyrocketing workmen's compensation claims. As a result, retailers are having to take action to reduce risk.

"A number of our clients are finding that their fastest-growing cost of doing business can be workmen's compensation claims. This escalating cost automatically leads to a greater commitment to installing improved work-station equipment for front-end employees," Gorshe said. Here is how some retailers are working to improve the situation:

Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, Winn-Dixie, Cincinnati-based Thriftway and Kroger are placing greater emphasis on the checkstand's overall integration into the front-end configuration.

"We want to have cashiers interface more directly with customers so the cashier doesn't have to turn to one side or another in order to access the cash drawer," said one retailer, who asked not to be named.

"At one time, the register-stand was at the same point in the line where the scanner was, but by moving the register stand 15 to 18 inches in front of the scanner," it made the checkout more ergonomically oriented, he said.

Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., and Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., are experimenting with curved or sloped check-writing stands. These designs are said to be ergonomically advantageous because they require less wrist motion to write on a properly sloped surface than a flat one.

Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., is leading a trend toward longer belt lengths. Belt length typically is growing from 18 to 24 inches. For the cashier, the greater length lessens the amount of reaching and stretching required. It also enables merchandise to be scanned at a point closer to the check-writing stand.

Several Piggly Wiggly divisions have installed left-hand-oriented checkout lanes. On these lanes, the checkstand is to the right, rather than the left, of the register, making it easier for left-handed employees.

Ronetco Supermarkets, Ledgewood, N.J., has installed a dual-belt system that allows cashiers to scan and weigh the item on the first stand, and deposit it into a bag on a lower, height-adjustable second belt.

Ronetco says the checkstands can hold 20% more products than older models and are ergonomically advantageous for cashiers who are also bagging.

Other executives cited additional areas in which ergonomic design is improving.

Belt assemblies, for example, are becoming more high-tech, said one retailer. "'Several vendors have introduced multipart new models. They hadn't been changed in years, but ergonomic considerations seem to have played a part" in the introduction of some enhanced equipment designs. "In the past you had one drive roller and one tail pulley, which led to shorter belt drives and more or less forced you to put the cash drawer in a 'reach and stretch' position from the cashier. Now you have a nose-belt assembly with a stretch belt over and around the cash box."

Greater attention is also being paid to integrating the different components of workstations with each other, as well as to other issues likely to relate to the duties of the cashier, Gorshe said.

"There's an effort on the part of the retailers to ensure that the manufacturers locate the UPC codes properly. If a cashier knows that the UPC code will always be on the bottom flap of a given item, he or she will spend less time twisting their wrist and the item to get it to scan," he said.