Ergonomics & Material Handling: Taking the Pain Out of Your Warehouse

Material handling is a pain. No, really. According to a recent report by The Travelers Companies, Inc., material handling is the most frequent cause of injury in the workplace. The Injury Impact Report by The Travelers studied over 1.5 million workers compensation claims from 2010 to 2014. At the top of the list was material handling, capturing 32 percent of the total claims.

This should not come as a surprise. Most warehouse/distribution center settings demand product move quickly to the desired destination. Time is money and the longer it takes to accomplish the task, less money is earned. However, the unintended consequences of getting product to market faster, also has the potential to reduce profit. Issues related to repetitive movement, slips, falls, and other ergonomic dangers put workers at risk and slow productivity, particularly in the picking process.

The process of picking product is fraught with danger in many warehouse settings. Even when items are easily accessible, other forces are at work making the act of picking an adventure.

The sweet spot of picking

In an ideal world, all picking happens within the picker’s safe lifting zone. This zone, according to the University of Virginia, is the distance between a person’s knees and shoulders. This zone minimizes bending or reaching. Unfortunately, the material handling world is not ideal.

Going low is a pain in the back

Many warehouses use the space beneath racks for storage, often for heavier items. Picking from these locations may be efficient in maximizing storage; however, it represents a major ergonomic challenge for the picker.

In accessing these items, a picker must bend at the waist putting a high level of stress on the back. Then while in that position, the picker must reach to retrieve the product, putting additional stress on muscles. While attempting to pick from these locations, pickers must also avoid injury from hitting their head on the rack above them.

Too high creates different issues

Pallet racks are designed for efficient storage of product but not necessarily for safe picking. Pickers often for the sake of speed attempt to reach for product on racks higher than shoulder height. This is extremely unsafe. Products at this height frequently place the picker in awkward positions causing extreme strain on neck and shoulder muscles. Additionally, items near the desired product may fall on the picker causing further injury.

Congestion in the aisles

An unintended consequence of picking in today’s fast-paced warehouse is aisle congestion. Many warehouse configurations are narrow and do not allow for the level of traffic needed to meet efficient order fulfillment.

Too many bodies combined with forklift/other mechanized vehicle traffic, create an unsafe workplace. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics identified this as a major cause of fatalities in the warehouse.

Arriving at the right solution

Every warehouse uses some manner of product picking. The challenge is doing so in a safe and efficient manner. There are many possible solutions to improve ergonomics and reduce injury. Some high tech solutions call for the use intelligent robotics to handle much of the picking. While this is an option, for many the investment makes it unrealistic.

Some solutions call for the use of pick modules, where product is retrieved from the warehouse and transported to the pick module. Pickers then take the amount of product needed to fill the order, often breaking down the pallet to pull individual items. This reduces aisle congestion and minimizes extreme bending, lifting or reaching.

There are several low-tech options too. The first and most important is training. Warehouse staff needs training in best practices for picking in a manner that reduces stress on the body. Proper lifting techniques, gear such as a lifting belts and similar options can have a dramatic impact on reducing injury. Additionally, scissor lifts and pallet levelers also help by adjusting to pallet to a safe height for loading/unloading.

Warehouse management also must consider different options to reduce worker injury. Making changes in warehouse design, incorporating racks designed with ergonomics in mind or rethinking the way picking is accomplished may sound expensive, but it will save time and money in the long run.

You need to find the solution that works best for your situation. A warehouse professional who understands how to combine efficiency with ergonomics can help guide you to the best solution.

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