The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 5,524 workplace deaths in 2002, along with 4.7 million serious injuries. How many more workers became ill from environmental conditions such as poor air quality or inadequate lighting is tougher to pin down. While the Environmental Protection Agency is reporting that our outdoor air is getting better, air inside the buildings where we work might be getting worse. This is particularly true in distribution centers that use older or non-electric lift trucks. Certainly, new combustion-engine lift truck models have made monumental strides in protecting the air workers breathe all day.

Increased delivery truck traffic at the material transfer zone presents another challenge for warehouses. Tighter inventory control programs, for example, increase the number of deliveries and departures, requiring doors be opened, risking air degradation via carbon monoxide.

Ironically, some of the less healthy air is found in newer, energy-efficient buildings. It's called the sick-building syndrome and it costs businesses billions of dollars every year in lost productivity. When environmental factors in your warehouse are not right — things like lighting, heat and humidity — workers don't feel well. And when workers suffer, productivity suffers.

Providing a healthy workplace
Research indicates that we spend approximately 90 percent of our time indoors. While we are quick to protect ourselves when we venture out of doors, we're not so quick to ensure a protective environment indoors.

Regardless of where you work in the distribution center, there are risks ranging from carbonless copy paper to carbon monoxide.

Good industrial hygiene and work practices can reduce or eliminate many of the problems. Adequate ventilation, temperature controls and proper housekeeping go a long way toward improving the workplace environment. And as cliche as it sounds, improving circulation in the building doesn't cost, it pays.

"High-volume low-speed [HVLS] fan technology is a simple concept with a multitude of benefits," says Peter Caruso, president and CEO, MacroAir Technologies. "The opportunity for cost savings is equal to employee comfort and improved productivity."

"Promoting safety through technology is a way to make the workplace environment more productive as well as safe."

The success of HVLS technology stems from the fact that these fans move huge volumes of air, making them more than just cooling systems. By circulating the air, moisture, for example, can be removed from floors and equipment surfaces.

In colder climates, the fans, through a process known as destratification, move already-heated air down from the ceiling to mix with cooler air at other levels.

"With heat destratification," says Caruso, "we typically expect 20 percent, or more, in heat-expense savings."

Caruso bases this on the industry standard of a three percent to five percent saving for every degree of thermostat reduction. By circulating the air, HVLS prevents the thermostat from cycling as frequently.

Typical heating systems in warehouses use blast heaters high in the ceiling, blowing hot air throughout the facility. It's not uncommon, says, Caruso, to have a 15-degree temperature difference between the ceiling and floor.

"We've found," he says, "that an HVLS fan can move as much air as 25 48-inch fans, operating with essentially the same size motor." This translates to a fraction of the energy use, comparable to the amount of energy used by three light bulbs. A 24-foot-diameter fan uses one horsepower, or less, to run at low revolutions.

Caruso says he talks with people at all management levels within a distribution center — from the boss to the maintenance supervisor. Everyone has different ways of looking at energy-cost problems.

"The CEO," says Caruso, "sees the energy bills each month, while the maintenance supervisor's concerns are about comfort and safety."

"Creating a safe, healthy workplace environment does not have to be an expensive proposition."

Among the intangible benefits of proper circulation is that proper mixing of air makes employees more alert. If employees are stationed at desks and the air around them is not moving, they are surrounded by their own carbon monoxide and they start to nod off. Circulation brings fresh oxygen to the employees and keeps them alert.

Managing energy
There are financial benefits to managing warehouse and plant environments in addition to the direct benefit to workers. Kraft Foods, working with Rockwell Automation, has embarked on a multiyear energy reduction initiative for its North American facilities.

"Finding ways to reduce energy demand," says Fred Sherriff, vice president of manufacturing technical services, Kraft, "is consistent with our drive to achieve efficiencies in all aspects of our business." He adds that it is also consistent with the company's efforts to be a responsible citizen and reduce the environmental impact of its operations.

Al Hamdan, product manager, Rockwell Automation, says it's a misconception that manufacturing related energy costs are uncontrollable. "Quantifying energy consumption for various processes and identifying power quality problems," says Hamdan, "will indeed arm managers with good information that will pinpoint specific operations where they can optimize energy use."

There are many ways to calculate energy cost savings in the warehouse. The power required to drive the fan to circulate the air varies with the cube of the average air speed through the fan."

That means, a fan delivering air at 20 mph requires 64 times as much power as one delivering the air at 5 mph. HVLS technology moves more air using larger blades rather than larger motors.

The intangible benefits of controlling the air in a distribution center are a bit harder to quantify. Worker comfort and safety are certainly factors in productivity.

"Since we're constantly mixing the air," says Caruso, "if there's high humidity or wet floors, those things might impact comfort or lift truck braking. Mixed air can help alleviate those problems."

Women's issues
Currently, women comprise 46 percent of the 137 million workers in the U.S. in general, and about the same proportion in warehouses. It's predicted their share of the labor force will grow to about 48 percent by 2008. While women and men face the same general environmental issues, women have additional challenges.

Research by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests exposures to hazardous substances may play a role in the development of 180,000 new cases of breast cancer every year or the 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year. And while dilution is not the solution to environmental problems, assuring a steady flow of fresh air within the building is seen as one way to lessen airborne pathogens.

Creating a safe workplace
Lift trucks kill an estimated 100 people every year and cause serious injuries to an estimated 20,000 people annually. It's easy to attach dollar amounts to these numbers; however, the real costs are in human terms, something that does not show on a balance sheet.

Educating employees about how to behave around lift truck traffic is certainly a good starting point. Promoting safety through technology, however, is a way to make the workplace environment more productive as well as safe, says Bill Chernick of Alert Safety Products.

Chernick's products are warning devices that alert workers and lift truck operators that an area is occupied, or that a lift truck is moving into or out of an area. The company's directional dock alert product has the ability to count lift trucks moving into confined areas. It keeps the alarm in the ready position until the last lift truck has moved from the area, be it an aisle or trailer sitting at the dock. Using photo-sensors to trigger beams of red light or audible warnings, its directional worker alert products warn pedestrians of hazardous intersections.

What you can do
Creating a safe, healthy workplace environment in the distribution center does not have to be an expensive proposition. There are some quick and easy fixes for environand-mental problems. Research has shown, for example, that musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, can be reduced by giving workers periodic breaks throughout the work shift. And it might actually help rather than hinder productivity.

If you're concerned about the air inside your warehouse, manufacturers of HVLS products can do quick calculations to tell you how many fans your building requires (five to 10 fans per 100,000 square feet, estimates Caruso) and how much you can expect in energy savings based on fuel costs in your geographic region. Payback is quick in energy-cost savings healthy employees will be more productive. Sometimes doing simple, manual tasks, such as positioning barricades across an open dock door, can prevent accidents. Companies such as Rite-Hite and SPX Dock Products offer a variety of literature that will guide you in establishing a safer workplace environment in your warehouse.

Sources of Information

If you need more information on the subject of the workplace environment, contact any of the sources listed below.

• Alert Safety Products Inc., www.mhminfo.com/3924-309

• Barrett C. Miller, www.mhminfo.com/3924-310

• Environmental Protection Agency, www.mhminfo.com/3924-311

• MacroAir Technologies LLC, www.mhminfo.com/3924-312

• National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, www.mhminfo.com/3924-313

• Rite-Hite, www.mhminfo.com/3924-314

• Rockwell Automation, www.mhminfo.com/3924-315

• SPX Dock Products, www.mhminfo.com/3924-316

• Winchester Fabricators, www.mhminfo.com/3924-317