Ergonomics & Productivity in the Distribution Center

In this Guest Blog Scott Stone, Director of Marketing at materials handling provider Cisco-Eagle  looks at the relationship between good ergonomics and productivity in the distribution center.

productivity ergonomics distibution centerIt goes without saying that productivity should be a key area of focus in the distribution center. After all, a productive DC is a profitable DC.

But productivity doesn’t always mean harder work. In the words of the late Henry Ford, “Improved productivity means less sweat – not more.”

That’s where ergonomics, the practice of designing the job to fit the worker, comes into play. According to the Occupational Health & Safety Administration, ergonomics helps to lessen muscle fatigue, increase productivity, and reduce the number and severity of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Let’s take a closer look at the vital role ergonomics plays in driving productivity and efficiency in the distribution center:

Decreased Risk of Injury

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the U.S. warehousing and storage industry reported a total recordable rate of 5.2 injuries per 100 full-time workers in 2013. What’s even more shocking is that MSDs, which include anything from muscle strains and lower back injuries to carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis, occurred twice as frequently in the warehousing industry as in general private industry.

For DCs, the implications of work-related injuries can be disastrous. Companies can be faced with not only significant worker compensation insurance premiums, but also productivity losses as workers are sidelined and unable to work.

Good ergonomics, however, can decrease the risk of worker injury in the first place. By reducing physical strain on the body (i.e., floor-level lifting, stretching to reach loads above or below arm level, or bending over for long periods of time), ergonomics allows workers to focus on the work – not the amount of effort required to get the work done.

Here are a few ways DCs can set up workplace ergonomics to drive productivity gains:

  • Walk the floor and identify risk factors (awkward postures, repetitive or quick motions, etc.)
  • Control risk factors with ergonomic solutions (adjustable height workstations, anti-fatigue mats, using lifts or hoists to reduce awkward positions, etc.)
  • Take advantage of ergonomic tools & resources (EASE, OSHA, NIOSH)
  • Continually monitor workflow and make ergonomic improvements as necessary

Improved Quality & Customer Satisfaction

Aside from decreasing the risk of worker injury, ergonomics also helps to improve distribution productivity – and ultimately results in a more satisfied customer base.

As noted in an SSI Schaefer article, “Ergonomics is more than just going easy on joints and muscles. It is also about logic, easy to follow work steps, and stress-free processes.”

In the distribution center, this might, for example, involve investing in a goods-to-person picking system to increase pick speeds, reduce errors, and motivate workers. These types of systems keep pickers productive in countless ways, as every reach that’s a little too high or a little too deep adds seconds to every order line.

The idea, of course, is for DCs to simply be mindful of the inefficiencies that can slow down workflow – and make adjustments so that workers aren’t wearing themselves thin and product is being handled in as systematic and logical a manner as possible.

Efficient Facility Design

Ergonomics may not have been a prime plant design consideration in the past, but, in today’s consumer-driven landscape, companies need to be prioritizing ways to make their facilities as efficient and productive as possible.

A design based on the premise that everything in a workstation should be within reach of the operator is the most efficient use of both the floor area and the workers within that area. In other words, workers shouldn’t need to take steps to reach product or materials. Aside from reducing costs related to injuries and musculoskeletal stress, the defined productivity benefits make an ergonomics program easy to justify.

To avoid causing worker backtrack, DCs should consider allotting sufficient storage areas for the product (work in progress) as it moves through printing and finishing operations, thereby reducing extra handling of material. After all, congestion causes bottlenecks, not to mention potential product damage and risk of worker injury.

Final Thoughts

In the distribution center, productivity and ergonomics go hand-in-hand. Aside from the obvious benefit of a healthier, more engaged workforce, a good ergonomics program can help companies improve product quality and overall efficiency, resulting in a more satisfied customer base and increased revenue.

How does your company view the relationship between ergonomics & productivity?

Scott Stone is the Director of Marketing for Cisco-Eagle, Inc., a provider of integrated material handling and storage systems for industrial operations. Scott has 25 years of experience in industrial operations and marketing.

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