Safety matters: the ergonomic benefits of automation
Most conventional warehouses require workers to manually lift, carry and lower often-heavy containers
of goods. The repetitive twisting, turning and reaching actions put warehouse staff at constant risk of
injury, as well as potential long-term damages from years of prolonged physical stress. Such continued
strain on muscles, tendons, joints and nerves can lead to chronic conditions, including Repetitive Stress
Injuries, Repetitive Motion Injuries, Musculoskeletal Disorders, Cumulative Trauma Disorders and
Cumulative Trauma Injuries.
While warehouse managers can take precaution by training workers on proper lifting techniques and
posture, instruction cannot fully eliminate the impact of physical labor on the human body. The
International Labour Organization reports that an estimated 340 million occupational accidents happen
around the world each year, with an additional 160 million workers experiencing work-related illnesses.
Additionally, studies show that the number of injury cases in warehousing continues to be significantly
higher than other industries.
With ergonomics in mind, many industrialized nations have implemented initiatives designed to protect
workers from injury. For example, the United States has legislation dating back to 1970 with the
Occupational Safety and Health Act. The European Union created the Directive 90/269/EEC in 1990,
which details the minimum health and safety requirements for the manual handling of loads. In 2011,
Canada set forth health and safety regulations that encourage the use of mechanical aids whenever
possible for ergonomics.
Creating more ergonomic-friendly workplaces is one important reason for warehouses to look to
automation. From conveyers and automated guided vehicles (AGVs), to automated storage and retrieval
systems (AS/RS) and order picking solutions, such robotics and machinery can alleviate staff from the
demanding task of order fulfillment. Facilities can limit human intervention to supervising operations,
releasing orders, selecting picking sequences, transport planning, or stepping in for products with special
Minimize employee risks of injury, protecting long-term health
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the rate of work-related injury and illness in the
warehouse and storage industries affect over five percent of the workforce. Nearly four percent of
these recordable cases lead to absences from work—a rate higher than the median absentee rate of 2.8
cases per 100. In an industry already struggling with available labor, workforce absences due to injury
only puts further strain on healthy workers to pick up the slack—putting those workers at greater risk
for injuries as well.
Automated warehousing systems can minimize the amount of required labor in the warehouse, allowing
facilities to overcome challenges due to shortages in available staff. With technology taking over the
majority of materials handling, companies can counter absenteeism and proactively eliminate the risks
of injury by protecting workers’ safety and long-term health.
Promote a culture of safety, enhancing job satisfaction
An ergonomic-friendly workplace helps to set the tone for a company’s commitment to safety, where
prevention of all injuries is the goal. A positive safety culture—where the majority of workers buy into
the shared commitment towards safety—has a positive influence on morale and turns workers into
dependable and proactive safety advocates. Positive morale and job satisfaction directly impact
employee performance and retention, saving companies from the need to replace staff in limited labor
pools. Additionally, workers who are less fatigued, and not experiencing pain or discomfort, are more
Increase overall efficiency and accuracy
In addition to ergonomic improvements, automation can help warehouses increase operational
efficiency and productivity. With the right equipment, wasted motions are eliminated, maximizing
material flow and efficiency. Facilities can better keep up with increased product demand and order
numbers during peak periods. With less human intervention, order accuracy also increases. In fact, by
automating order picking in its headquarters’ warehouse, bread and roll manufacturer Martin’s Famous
Pastry Shoppe, Inc.® was able to eliminate the inherent safety risks in manual fulfillment while reducing
its man hours by 30 percent.
Reduce operational costs
Healthy, satisfied workers and a well-optimized, efficient warehouse translates to tangible, business
benefits. After all, there are inherent costs associated with hiring and training employees. The Society
for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that companies can spend six to nine months of a
single employee’s salary just on recruiting and training a replacement. With less risks for on-the-job
injuries, automated warehouses can find additional savings through reduced costs in worker’s
compensation, liabilities, and potential litigation.
In today’s high-demand world, safe product handling is essential for success. Automated solutions,
including order picking systems, conveyers, AGVs and AS/RS, can not only eliminate ergonomic hazards
for workers, but also improve efficiency in distribution. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there
are numerous options available today. Conducting a risk assessment to identify current dangers to
employees “and how automation can help” is a good place to start.
By Miia Vironen, Director, Corporate QHSE, Cimcorp (www.cimcorp.com)