Despite concerns over inflation and a potential recession in 2023, retailers have reason to be optimistic. After nearly three years of decreased sales caused by the pandemic, consumers hit the stores as well as online sites in droves during the 2022 holiday season. Retail sales were projected to grow between 6% and 8% in 2022, compared to the 2021 holiday season, reaching between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion, representing a significant opportunity for retailers still struggling to make up for the losses incurred during the pandemic.
For every retailer scrambling to meet this increased consumer demand, there are thousands of warehouse employees working long hours doing repetitive, physically strenuous, potentially dangerous work in the fast-paced environments that receive, pick, pack, and ship everything from laptops, cellphones and books to dog food, dolls and construction materials. As warehouse workers race to meet ever rising shipping targets, reports of accidents, repetitive stress injuries, and debilitating muscle and joint conditions are skyrocketing. Some workplace injuries are obvious and immediately known, while others take years to surface.
The rise of e-commerce over the past few years, the severe labor shortage, and the need to cut costs has led to the perfect storm for logistics and distribution centers. The people who operate these facilities face a higher volume of orders, and warehouse workers are encouraged to work longer and harder, often while receiving less training. It’s no surprise that reports of injuries and debilitating health conditions are on the rise. The work is often strenuous, and involves manually pulling pallets loaded with hundreds of pounds of merchandise to various stations around the warehouse. It includes labeling, inventory management, breaking down bulk materials, assembly, packaging orders, loading trucks and shipments, and making transportation arrangements.
As demand increases, so too do the hours warehouse workers have to put in to meet quotas and ensure products get to their intended destinations in ever-decreasing periods of time, as consumers now expect products to arrive overnight, and retailers need merchandise replenished as soon as it leaves the shelf.
Beyond the Injuries
The true cost of warehouse injuries is much greater than the pain suffered by employees and the cost of workers’ compensation insurance alone. The financial impact of accidents and injuries can be a problem for the companies as well. According to the National Safety Council, a worker injury costs companies an average of $38,000 in direct costs, which includes things like medical bills and rehabilitation. It’s the indirect costs, however, that tend to add up, and the Council estimates that companies pay about $150,000 per accident. These indirect costs cover everything from loss of productive time due to lowered morale and training costs for replacement workers. This doesn’t even factor in OSHA fines, which may be applicable, depending on the nature of the accident.
Understandably, many companies are stepping up injury-prevention programs in their fulfillment centers while others are testing new technologies aimed at reducing injuries. Consider the following steps to improve workforce conditions in the warehouse.
Acknowledge the problem. As with any problem, this is the essential first step. For years, business leaders and operators of logistics and distribution facilities have downplayed the health problems associated with worker health and safety. But let’s face it; working in a warehouse can be dangerous. However, with an acknowledgement of the problem, steps can be taken to significantly reduce the rate of these incidents, boost productivity and morale, and improve the company’s profitability.
Establish a culture of safety. Don’t leave workforce safety to the purview of safety and ergonomics teams only. Make safety a company-wide initiative with a top-down approach to ensuring all employees, including management, embrace the key principles of ensuring a safe working environment for all staff, especially those working in the warehouse environment. In large part thanks to employee-led initiatives, companies are placing more of a focus on the health and safety of their warehouse workers. They are creating new policies and procedures to minimize risk and ensure the safety of employees. These include appointing chief safety officers, providing proper training, and promoting awareness about any potential safety hazards. In addition to investing in new safer solutions, business leaders and warehouse management must practice what they preach.
Invest in innovative solutions. Despite threats and fears of automated solutions replacing humans in the warehouse, the reality is that people will always be needed in logistics, fulfillment and distribution facilities. And those workers need solutions that enable them to efficiently and safely do their jobs. Mobilizing warehouse functions such as inventory control, for example, untethers employees from fixed workstations, allowing them to safely access applications and data at the point of task. This eliminates wasted movement, optimizes productivity, increases operator safety and reduces worker fatigue. A win for the operator as well as the company.
There are millions of workers doing manual material handling jobs in the U.S. While many companies acknowledge the need for a safer environment for warehouse workers and are making investments to improve working conditions, more needs to be done to improve safety conditions. The warehouse, as with all work environments, should be a place where all employees feel safe and supported as they do the important business of meeting rising consumer demand.
Steve Shaheen is CEO and co-founder of Definitive Technology Group.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.