The principle of stopping problems before they start is nowhere more applicable than in the materials handling area, where malfunctions and mistakes can mean not only lost time, but also worker injuries and damaged equipment.
That's why distribution executives maintain a focus on preventive maintenance for the variety of warehouse equipment used to move product. It also explains the continuing emphasis on safety training for distribution center personnel, as well as the move toward ergonomic designs to keep workers safe, comfortable and productive.
Distribution executives told SN that equipment designed with workers' needs in mind, used properly and safely, can significantly reduce accidents in the warehouse and also cut costs in the supply chain.
"The most critical aspect to servicing the customer is having good equipment to get product to the store," said Ken Paklos, warehousing manager for Stop & Shop Cos., Quincy, Mass. "You need equipment that will not break down and create down time in the facility. Instead, it should increase productivity and efficiency in the warehouse. Without good equipment, you are dead."
Many distributors rely on preventive maintenance programs to service, repair, and in some cases help determine replacement schedules for equipment such as pallet jacks, high lifts, forklifts and even pick-to-belt conveyor systems.
"Every 250 hours we bring our pallet jacks to the mechanic for a thorough inspection, including the testing of wheels, brakes, casters and all electronic components," said Paklos. "Staying on top of the little equipment concerns seems to make the big problems go away."
Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., relies on a similar program to track whether it is more cost-effective to repair or replace materials handling equipment.
The required equipment inspections "enable us to carefully track how much money is spent to repair equipment, and make better decisions about fixing or replacing certain units," said Joe Monaco, manager of distribution for Ukrop's. "We keep folders and invoices on each unit, and this helps us evaluate if repair costs outweigh the cost of a new unit."
Use of preventive maintenance programs has produced significant repair cost reductions, as well. "We have experienced a decreasing trend in our repair costs for the past three years," said Stop & Shop's Paklos. "There has been a 15% to 20% reduction in our repair costs due to the preventive maintenance program."
Ukrop's also credits its preventive maintenance inspections with reducing both operating and repair costs. "We have been able to prevent major breakdowns and keep equipment safe through the use of the program," Monaco said. "I would even like to see our costs drop 10% next year through the program."
Properly functioning equipment goes hand-in-hand with the reduction of accidents in the warehouse. "Equipment that works properly can reduce safety risks as well as boost efficiency in the distribution facility," he added.
"When a retailer is considering the purchase of any materials handling equipment, safety should be as important a concern as any other factor," said an executive from a major Southeastern retailer. "Safety is equal in importance [in the supply chain] to quality, morale, cost and productivity."
Accident costs can easily mount up. "The cost of an average back injury is $40,000 -- and 35% of accidents are back injuries," added the source, who asked not to be identified. "This shows retailers that they need the right equipment to do the right job," in order to avoid similar accidents.
A key area retailers need to consider for the comfort and safety of workers who operate materials handling equipment is ergonomic design. "The newer forklifts and pallet jacks are designed with the user's comfort and protection in mind," said Ukrop's Monaco.
In addition to comfort, ergonomically designed equipment also provides distributors with more productivity in the distribution center. Jack handle controls that allow users to press a button rather than turn their wrist, for example, help workers avoid awkward motions, said the executive.
"Padded platform stands position workers in a safer, more comfortable way rather than straining their backs," the executive added. "Better positioning of the body inside equipment allows the user to perform in a safer work environment, which creates more productivity from the associate."
Any consideration of safety issues leads inevitably to training. "Training is always the key issue to bring associates up to speed with the equipment," Stop & Shop's Paklos said. "This lets us kill the negative and focus on giving associates better operating control.
"You can give an associate a state-of-the art piece of equipment, but if the operator is not trained, it does not matter," he added. "Then other issues come into play, like safety of the user and others in the depot, as well as damage to racking and the machine being operated."
Ukrop's safety training is enforced daily in its three facilities. "For starters, we teach our drivers and lift operators to be aware of pedestrians on the [warehouse] floor," Monaco said. "We also enforce traffic patterns and operating safety rules and regulations in the warehouse."
Distributors' safety training efforts are paying off in a big way. "Last year we saw about a 45% decrease in our accident frequency rate," said the Southeastern executive. "We do have an optimistic goal for the future as well. However, it is safe to say that we are currently at the level we planned [in this area]."