Ergonomic considerations, whether incorporated into materials-handling equipment or the way orders are selected for building pallets, are playing a bigger role as retailers and wholesalers seek to dramatically reduce employee injuries and workers' compensation costs.
Safety and ergonomics programs, particularly those that address the problems associated with lifting and bending, also ranked high as ways to prevent employees from getting hurt in the warehouse.
"We've reduced our workers' compensation costs by 50% over a three-year time period from all our combined efforts and projects," said Steve Sudbeck, grocery warehouse manager for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.
This blending of solutions involving better equipment, practices and procedures that address ergonomics and safety is a major priority for the industry.
"Safety is job one really, and any way we can weave it into our business, through our materials handling, warehouse layout or processes, we do," said Tom Baldwin, director of warehouse operations at H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio.
"We have quite a bit of materials-handling equipment and where we see an opportunity to improve the machine format so that it's more ergonomically correct and safe, we take advantage of that," he added.
"We particularly look at the hand controls," Baldwin said. "Hand controls for a forktruck involve repetitive movement, so ergonomics play a role there. The throttle position, throttle design, ease of steering and how they relate to each other are pretty critical."
H-E-B recently reviewed three different types of forktrucks. In this process, the equipment was tested by the retailer's operators, who gave feedback on the design and how it could be improved. This information was then passed on to the manufacturers for changes.
"Of course we look at cost and productivity, but the operator acceptance plays very big in our purchase decisions," Baldwin said. H-E-B purchases in the range of 10 to 30 forktrucks a year and hundreds of pallet jacks and double-pallet jacks, which are used for most of its selection and unloading and loading of trucks at its San Antonio warehouse. Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis, recently purchased another side-stand forklift to add to its group of 100 in use at its 20 distribution centers.
"The side-stand forklift is the only type we buy," said Warren Frank, manager of warehouse productivity and equipment at Nash Finch. "The operator has a clear view in either direction, whether going forward or backward. He's not twisting his torso as much to see backwards. It's much more comfortable."
One new advance in materials handling is a forklift with the hydraulic cylinder that makes the forks go up and down on each side vs. in the middle of the unit as on most units. When the cylinder is in the middle it blocks the worker's view, making it more difficult to work. While Nash Finch doesn't have this piece of equipment, it is something the company may look at in the future, Frank said.
Within the next year, Bruno's, Birmingham, Ala., will be giving consideration to new equipment in pallet jacks and forktrucks with ergonomic features.
"We're fairly traditional, using double-pallet jacks and narrow aisle forklifts, and counterbalance forklifts, and none are equipped with new ergonomic features," said George Williams, vice president of distribution. "But as we look to make new equipment purchases, we will look into the potential opportunities to improve the ergonomics of the equipment for the operator."
Arnold Wetzel, distribution center manager at John C. Groub Co., Seymour, Ind., said while it's seeing a lot more equipment that takes ergonomics into consideration, it is sticking with the forklifts and sit-down riders that have worked well for its operations.
Recently it added more power jacks on the front dock for loading, "which has no real ergonomic benefit, except that it takes the strain off your body of the pushing and pulling of a loaded pallet," he said.
In addition to equipment with ergonomic features, certain capabilities within warehouse-management systems can help with ergonomic issues. For example, Schnuck Markets recently purchased a warehouse-management system that will organize a selection order to maximize the ergonomic efficiencies of the selector.
With this type of selection order, "we will not have selectors putting super heavy cases up over their heads and they won't be stacking the products too high," Sudbeck said. "We will have light product going on top of heavy product. This [technology] takes into account all the common-sense things that go into injury-related selection."
Another way Schnuck plans to reduce injuries is through its reset of the warehouse, which is a 12- to 18-month project. The retailer is about half-way through the project.
"We're actually re-establishing the slot sizes where the product goes," Sudbeck said. "Predominantly, what we're doing is trying to accommodate manufacturer tie and high, so we don't play the game at the door, where we're the customer and we want it to our configuration. If Procter & Gamble sends a product, we can put it in the slot."
The ergonomic benefit of this change is a raising of all the bars on the heights of the selection slot so that selectors can walk into most of the slots.
If an employee is driving by these slots on a pallet jack, "he used to have to stop, stoop into a little slot, pull out a case, stoop out and stack it onto the pallet jack," he explained. "Now all he or she has to do is walk into the slot, pick up the case and walk out," Sudbeck said. "All that bending has been taken out of the process."