Physical overexertion is the leading cause of the most serious nonfatal injuries and illnesses involving days away from work, according to the Workplace Safety Index (Liberty Mutual, 2008). Because warehouses and distribution center (DC) operations have an abundance of ergonomic challenges, and because peak order fulfillment periods tend to exacerbate these issues, warehouse workers are among the top three highest-risk occupations for sprains, strains and low back disorders.  These findings make a compelling business case for companies to systematically address the root causes of ergonomic issues in the workplace.

Most Common Injury Instigators

  • Product storage heights that are too low or too high.
  • Retrieving products from the floor, elevated shelving, inside truck trailers, or from underneath storage racks increases a worker's risk of overexertion due to torso bending/twisting and awkward upper extremity positions.
  • Poorly-designed packing and sorting workstations. Work benches and workstations often require extended reaches to access packaging material or products along conveyors.  These workstations often lack adjustability and require prolonged sitting or standing in awkward postures that increase ergonomic risk factors, such as back bending and extended reaches.   
  • Poor flow management of goods through the warehouse. Lean principles are applied throughout most organizations but they are not always seamlessly integrated with ergonomics. Examples of this include using partial, double, or triple slotting storage techniques to maximize shelving space so that the greatest amount of product can fit in the smallest amount of warehouse space.  This type of slotting can increase ergonomic risk factors such as bending and elevated reaches. In addition, workers may bend at the torso to reach under low racking, or they may be required to forcefully pull out containers from under product stacks to access the appropriate item needed for order fulfillment.
  • Excessive walking while navigating narrow and congested aisles. Modern warehouses are larger than ever before and the majority of workers' time is spent in travel. Narrow width and congested aisles can add to this labor intensive activity, requiring order pickers to stop farther from the designated pick slot and carry items longer distances to pallets or carts. This can lead to employees overloading themselves by carrying multiple parcels around obstacles to limit the number of trips.

Fit Work to Worker

As a practicing ergonomist who has spent a lot of time in this tough environment, the common trends I have seen driving the increase in ergonomic concerns are those listed above. However, these trends do not have to gain popularity. Adhering to one ergonomic principle can not only reduce injuries and illness in the workplace but can lower workers' compensation costs and improve worker morale and productivity.

The primary principle of ergonomics is to fit the job to the physical and cognitive capabilities of the worker. Proper ergonomic applications in warehouse and DC environments can translate into a safer and more efficient workplace.  Some of the factors influencing companies to consider ergonomic improvements include the following:

  • The relentless push to do more with less;
  • Offering a higher number of stock keeping units (SKUs) that may include vastly different product sizes and storage requirements;
  • More consolidated DC networks (e.g., fewer buildings) using larger footprint (e.g., 1 million square feet) all-in-one facilities that include single line orders, multiple line orders, unit loads, bulky non-conveyable orders, and individualized value-added services like gift wrapping;
  • Shifts in peak processing periods driven by an increase in e-commerce order fulfillment and through post-holiday redemption of gift cards;
  • An increasing number of older workers, those aged 55 years and older, in the workforce with a significant increase of female employees between the ages of 65 and 74.

Simple changes can be implemented to assist even the most cost-conscious and conventional organizations that have minimal plans for expansion.