Safety in store: From the back room to the parking lot, retail workers face many hazards on the job
Retail workers experienced a combined injury and illness rate higher than the construction industry in 2016. Experts say top-down commitment is needed to prevent a work environment that values inventory over safety.
When people go shopping, they likely aren’t worried about getting hurt or becoming ill at their local supermarket, big-box electronics store or home improvement center. Customers expect these places to have dry floors, clear paths, well-stocked shelves, and parking areas unobstructed by carts and free of broken pavement and icy surfaces.
However, the retail industry workers who provide that welcoming environment experienced a combined injury and illness rate (3.3 per 100 full-time workers) higher than the construction industry in 2016, according to a Bureau of Labor Statics report.
Moving products from delivery trucks to storage areas then to shelves, along with scanning and bagging items, is hazardous work. Musculoskeletal disorders are the most common injury experienced – 36.5 per 10,000 full-time workers reported an MSD in 2014. Slips, trips and falls are the third-most cited cause of injury among retail workers – after overexertion and contact with objects and equipment – and increased to 17.3 per 10,000 workers in 2014 from 12.1 in 2009.
So, how can employers help improve safety?
Mike Wahl, director of health and safety at XPS Logistics and former safety executive at Toys R Us and Walmart, said management needs to make safety a priority. Wahl said a lack of commitment at the top can result in an environment that values inventory over safety.
“(Corporate) strategy needs to be focused on routine safety training, including at orientation and annual refresher training,” he said. “Routines also need to include a monthly comprehensive inspection of the retail store, in addition to daily inspection of high frequency/high severity areas.”
Wahl recommends employers conduct annual refresher training for part- and full-time workers that emphasizes slip, trip and fall prevention; safe use of ladders; parking lot cart-collection procedures; stretching; manual material handling; and housekeeping.
John Leyenberger is a safety consultant who has spent more than 20 years as a domestic and international safety executive at Walmart. Because material handling is the leading source of injury in retail, Leyenberger said, processes must be efficient, and equipment and lifting techniques must be ergonomic.
“There’s no way around it,” he said. “There’s a lot of manual lifting in retail.”
One way to limit hazards associated with such labor is to minimize the number of times workers touch the product, he added.
He cited an example from Walmart illustrating how safety can mesh with other departments for the good of all: the ordering of popcorn tins, which are popular during the winter holidays.
“We looked at sales by day, and instead of one big push to 3,500 stores, we got them gradually, using data from previous years, with multiple shipments much closer to peak days,” Leyenberger said. “We worked with merchandisers and the logistics group. It was amazing how much they reduced the labor costs, reduced inventory levels and had more room for other products. The back injuries and material-handling injuries were reduced during a peak time of year when you want your ‘A’ team in there for good customer service.
“It reduced the shrink, it reduced the touches, it reduced the inventory level so that we had more inventory turns per store, and that’s a measurement most retailers use for performance of the store.”
Leyenberger said another way teamwork can improve safety is equipment design. Cashiers, for example, engage in hours of repetitive motion, so Walmart engineers worked with an equipment supplier to make the checkout area as ergonomic as possible. A lazy Susan for bagging resulted in less lifting, as customers moved full bags from the lazy Susan to their carts.
As much as the rotating bag stations help reduce lifting by cashiers – Leyenberger estimates that they can lift 2,000 pounds per 8-hour shift – other design features may limit the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. He said the results of a questionnaire sent to 500 stores helped the chain adjust conveyors to proper heights and advise cashiers to work as much as possible in neutral positions and to minimize reaching. Soft edges in the checkout area help reduce contact injuries, as well.
In 2004, OSHA published “Guidelines for Retail Grocery Stores: Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders,” and in 2014, NIOSH released “Ergonomic Solutions for Retailers: Prevention of Material Handling Injuries in the Grocery Sector.” The author of the latter is Vern Putz Anderson, a NIOSH public health advisor and program coordinator for NIOSH’s Wholesale and Retail Trade program.
Anderson said that regardless of the labor-saving machinery available to the retail sector, humans are the most important factor in safety.
“Technology can be a solution in reducing the repetitive nature of packaging and the heavy job demands associated with order picking,” Anderson said. “Yet, manual material-handling jobs are still an important component in retail, despite automation. This means that manual labor is still in high demand. Retail sales is still an intensive labor occupation, requiring employees with strong interpersonal abilities.”
Anderson said it’s important to improve understanding of the decision-making process retail employers undertake when faced with hazards.
“As an example, how does a retail employer reconcile the dilemma of cost/benefits when they learn that a single back-injury case can cost their workers’ compensation insurance carrier an average of $50,000 against the cost of implementing engineering controls?” Anderson said.
He believes the industry needs a better grasp on:
- Ways to frame workplace safety and health messages for employers and owners about the benefits of implementing safety and health improvements and establishing workplace safety and health programs.
- Research to demonstrate the effectiveness of engineering controls and how improvements in employee work practices can reduce retail injuries and illnesses.
- Research to advance knowledge of the role of organizational and stress-related risk factors in the prevention of ergonomic and safety-related injuries among retail employees.
- Organizational risk factors in retail workplaces to improve the understanding of how they affect retail employees. Studies have shown organizational risk factors include excessive job demands, hostile work environment, low job control, low supervisory support, poor safety climate and work-life interference.
“A positive workplace culture is known to improve employee well-being and workplace productivity,” Anderson said.
Research of all industries backs up Anderson’s statement. One four-year study found a program delivered one company a return on investment of $1.65 for every $1 spent on health and wellness. In addition, a 2012 OSHA overview of injury and illness prevention programs found multiple benefits other than cost savings, such as injury reduction, employee loyalty and increased production.
Slips, trips and falls
More specifically, however, employers in the retail industry can focus on a number of common hazards.
As product director for workers’ compensation, ergonomics and tribology – the study of the interaction of sliding surfaces, which is applied to cause and prevention of slips and falls – for Liberty Mutual Insurance, Wayne Maynard is an expert on slips, trips and falls.
Maynard said he believes slips, trips and falls are on the rise because teamwork is required to decrease the risk.
“Prevention involves multiple stakeholders in an organization, including architects, design and construction, facility managers, housekeeping, [human resources], supervisors, managers, and employees, but the architect, design and construction community has been my greatest concern, as I see poor decisions being made during the design phase,” Maynard said.
“Educating designers on cause and prevention is critical because the building codes, standards and guidelines do not provide adequate guidance for safe design – but they are just one piece of the puzzle.”
While Prevention through Design concepts help eliminate danger before equipment gets to stores, the daily slip, trip and fall hazards inside retail stores include liquid or powder spills, objects in walkways, inappropriate footwear, uneven surfaces, and distracted people. Parking lots and entrances/exits present some of the same risks, as well as weather-related concerns such as moisture, ice and snow.
Maynard said indoor prevention strategies need to be proactive, and approaches include reporting incidents, identifying hazards, selecting the right flooring, implementing effective floor-cleaning procedures, selecting and managing slip-resistant footwear policies, and designing entrances with installation of the right matting. For the outdoors, lighting is key, as is snow removal, proper use of ice-melt chemicals, and repair of broken asphalt and sidewalk.
“Multiple dimensions are responsible to explain why slips, trips and potential falls might occur, and it’s important not to solely rely on the pedestrian being cautious, detecting slip and trip hazards, and taking corrective action,” he said. “Reducing or eliminating physical risk factors that can lead to same-level falls is an important proactive approach and essential to prevention.”