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Safety in Automation: for Ergonomics’ Sake

Authored By: Miia Vironen, Contributor

Most traditional warehouses require employees to manually lift, carry and lower often-heavy containers of goods. With repetitive twisting, turning and reaching, these actions put warehouse staff at constant risk of injury, as well as potential long-term damages due to years of prolonged physical stress. For instance, such continued stress on muscles, tendons, joints and nerves can lead to chronic conditions, including repetitive stress injuries, repetitive motion injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, cumulative trauma disorders and cumulative trauma injuries.

While facilities can take precaution by instructing employees on proper posture and lifting techniques, training cannot fully eliminate the impact of physical labor on the human body. According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 340 million occupational accidents happen around the world each year, with an additional 160 million workers experiencing work-related illnesses. Additionally, studies show that number of cases of injuries in warehousing continue to be significantly higher than other industries.

With ergonomics in mind, many industrialized nations have implemented initiatives designed to protect workers from injury. For example, the European Union has created the Directive 90/269/EEC, which details the minimum health and safety requirements for the safe manual handling of loads. The United States has legislation dating back to 1970 with the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In 2011, Canada set forth health and safety regulations that encourage the use of mechanicals aids whenever possible for ergonomics.

Creating more ergonomic-friendly workplaces is one important reason for warehouses to look at automation. From conveyers and automated guided vehicles (AGVs), to automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and order picking solutions, such robotics and machinery can alleviate staff from the demanding task of order fulfillment. Facilities can limit human intervention to supervising operations, releasing orders, selecting picking sequences, transport planning or stepping in for products with special handling instructions.

By automating, warehouses can not only improve employee safety and work conditions, but also realize a number of additional benefits:

Minimized Workforce Strain from Absenteeism

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the rate of work-related injury and illness in the warehouse and storage industries affects over five percent of the workforce. Nearly 4% of these recordable cases lead to absences from work—a rate substantially higher than the median absentee rate of 2.8 cases per 100. In an industry already struggling with available labor, workforce absences due to injury only puts further strain on healthy workers to pick up the slack—putting themselves at greater risk for injuries, as well. Automated warehousing systems can minimize the amount of required labor in the warehouse, allowing facilities to overcome challenges due to shortages in available staff. With technology taking over the majority of materials handling, companies can proactively eliminate the risks of injury, and counter absenteeism by protecting workers’ safety and long-term health.

Improved Job Satisfaction with a Culture of Safety

An ergonomic-friendly workplace helps to set the tone for a company’s commitment to safety, where prevention of all injuries is the goal. A positive safety culture—where the majority of workers buy into the shared commitment towards safety—has a positive influence on morale and turns workers into dependable and proactive safety advocates. Additionally, workers who are less fatigued and not experiencing pain or discomfort are more productive and satisfied. Positive morale and job satisfaction directly impact employee performance and retention, saving companies from the need to replace staff in limited labor pools.

Increased Process Efficiency and Accuracy

In addition to ergonomic improvements, automation can help warehouses increase overall operational efficiency and productivity. With the right equipment, wasted motions are eliminated, maximizing material flow and optimizing efficiency. Facilities can better keep up with increased product demand and order numbers during peak periods. With less human intervention, order accuracy also increases. In fact, by automating order picking in its headquarters’ warehouse, bread and roll manufacturer Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, Inc.® was able to eliminate the inherent safety risks in manual fulfillment on top of reducing its man hours by 30%.

Reduced Risks for Reduced Costs

Healthy, satisfied workers and a well-optimized, efficient warehouse translates to tangible business benefits. After all, there are inherent costs associated with hiring and training every employee. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that companies can spend six to nine months of a single employee’s salary just on recruiting and training a replacement. With less risks for on-the-job injuries, automated warehouses can find additional savings through reduced costs in worker’s compensation, liabilities and potential litigation.

In today’s high-demand world, safe product handling is essential for success. Automated solutions, including order picking systems, conveyers, AGVs and AS/RS, can not only eliminate ergonomic hazards for workers, but also improve overall efficiency within distribution. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are numerous options available today. Conducting a risk assessment to identify current dangers to employees—and how automation can help—is a good place to start. WMHS

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