Safety should be a top priority for any material handling operation. Overexertion is the most common type of workplace injury, accounting for 31% of all reported incidents. In light of how prevalent these injuries are, material handling ergonomics is an area every warehouse should address.
The importance of ergonomics goes beyond safety, too. Fewer injuries means less time away from work, meaning higher productivity levels. Even if muscle aches and stress don’t result in an injury, soreness can cause employees to work more slowly.
Ergonomics preserves employee health and enables higher productivity. These seven solutions can help you improve the ergonomics in your material handling operations, unlocking these benefits.
1. Ergonomics Training
One of the best ways to improve safety in any area is through education and training. When workers know how to lift and carry materials safely, they’ll avoid injuries from poor form. Managers should teach and demonstrate proper techniques to all new hires, and periodic refreshers can ensure workers don’t forget them.
Employees should know to keep all loads as close to their center of gravity as possible. That includes different types of carrying for different load shapes and sizes. Similarly, they should understand how to hold materials and when they should use a team lift.
2. Storage Layout Improvements
One aspect of material handling ergonomics that may go overlooked is a facility’s layout. While most solutions may focus on technique and workflow, the right type of storage can significantly reduce potential hazards in lifting. The most common error in storage layout is placing materials too high or too low.
If workers have to grab items from the floor, they could easily strain their back. Materials that are too high run the risk of falling or straining employees’ upper bodies. Storing material at waist level, at least for the most frequently handled items, will help avoid unnecessary stress.
3. Breaks and Rotation
Many ergonomics guides stress pre-work stretching, but studies have shown that stretching doesn’t meaningfully reduce injuries despite widespread belief to the contrary. What does help is rest and recovery. Giving your employees regular breaks and rotating them to avoid repetition provides the recovery period they need.
Material handling injuries typically come from repetitive stress, so reducing repetition lessens the risk of these accidents. Employees should rotate in and out of material handling instead of performing the same tasks all day. This rotation will give them time for their musculoskeletal system to recover and help them stay productive.
4. Material Handling Machinery
Some lifts are simply too heavy for workers to perform on their own. For example, beer kegs can weigh upwards of 160 pounds, posing a tremendous risk of injury to any worker who tries to lift them alone. With materials as heavy as this, employees need to let machines do the work.
There are two options when it comes to material handling machinery. Employees can use mechanical aids like dollies and exoskeletons, or delegate heavier lifts to automated systems. If facilities work with a broad range of material weights, they should have protocols for what equipment to use for different weight classes.
5. Appropriate PPE
Machinery isn’t the only type of equipment that can help improve material handling ergonomics. OSHA recommends gloves and steel-toed shoes to prevent injury to employees’ hands and feet. But you can go further.
Lumbar support belts can help workers keep their backs straight while lifting. This posture improvement will help avoid common mistakes like lifting with your back instead of your legs. If some workers already have musculoskeletal problems, equipment like knee braces can help prevent further injury.
6. Employee Reporting
Sometimes, no matter how many precautions you take, workers will start to develop a repetitive stress injury. It’s crucial to catch these early so you can address the problem before it becomes worse. The best way to do this is through a self-reporting system.
Employees must understand the importance of ergonomics for their health and safety if they’re to report signs of injury. If they know what to look for, they can alert a manager when they see early warning signs. You can then adjust their rotation, provide them with extra PPE, or take other action to prevent a more extensive injury.
7. Workflow Changes
An unoptimized workflow can increase the risk of injury for material handlers. Distances in an employee’s path may be too long, shifts may not have enough breaks, and work may be too repetitive. Even temperature can affect worker safety, as cold environments can lessen sensory feedback.
Material handlers should never have to move heavy items too far, especially without a dolly or pallet jack. They should also never have to work for too long on the same task at once. When they switch tasks, avoid placing them where they need to use heavy or vibrating tools, which can exacerbate musculoskeletal health risks.
Material Handling Ergonomics Improves Safety and Efficiency
Improving material handling ergonomics is more than just a health issue. When employees are safe, they’ll be happier, more comfortable, and more productive. Implementing these ergonomic solutions may seem like unnecessary extra work at first, but it will lead to benefits across the board.