Disproportionately high: Study on injuries among retail workers surprises researchers

  • Some of the more common types of injury in the retail industry include musculoskeletal disorders, which often are discounted not only by management but by the workers themselves. 
  • Employers should make it clear to workers in a fast-paced environment that safety should not take a backseat to productivity.
  • Training is only one component of a safety and health program, and employers should work with employees to mitigate hazards through changes in workplace design and work processes.

By Lauretta Claussen, associate editor

In March 2010, NIOSH released a report evaluating injuries and illnesses in the wholesale and retail trade industries. The study was the most comprehensive of its kind, and the results surprised even the study authors. 

The report found that despite perceptions of the retail trades being relatively free of injuries and illnesses, the industry actually experiences a disproportionately high number of both. In 2006, approximately 820,500 injuries and 581 fatalities occurred among the 21 million retail workers in the United States, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although the wholesale and retail trade industry made up 15.5 percent of private-sector work for the year, it accounted for 20.1 percent of nonfatal injuries and illnesses.

Study author Vern Putz said the results were not what he initially anticipated. “I was surprised at the number of injuries and illnesses, and even fatalities,” he said, noting the retail workforce is extremely diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and education level.

Hazards exist

Although many people view retail work as safe, Putz pointed out that retail workers perform a wide array of tasks in a typical day. “The retail industry is very diverse in the nature of its physical and mental demands,” he said. “Specifically, there are approximately 75 subsectors within the retail sector.”

The risk of working in retail is not necessarily something discounted strictly at the management level; many workers also may dismiss the risks they are taking on. “The assumption is that if you’re working part-time and you’re working in the kind of nonrisky, nonhazardous industry, everything’s fine,” said Jackie Nowell, director of the occupational safety and health office of the Washington-based United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

In addition to believing retail work is predominantly nonrisky, people who work in a part-time, hourly wage situation also may be less inclined to report an injury out of fear of losing their jobs. Nowell reported meeting a cashier who had been working with a sore hand for a year yet was reluctant to come forward with her injury because she could not afford to lose the extra work hours.

“So the other issue,” Nowell pointed out, “is when [workers] are hurting, are they going to go give up some hours of work or a week of work to try to get healthy, or just hope on their own they can get through it?”

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One of the major injury risks for retail workers is musculoskeletal disorders. These include sprains, strains, back pain, soreness and carpal tunnel syndrome. BLS data from 2003 indicated retail workers experienced more than 83,000 MSDs. Perhaps one of the greatest risks of MSDs exists in the process of lifting. Managing storerooms, stocking shelves and unloading trucks can be dangerous tasks if proper lifting procedures and assists are not in place.

“Depending on the size of the operation, [employers] may underestimate the extent of, or the potential impact of, the amount of physical lifting that’s involved in just ?stocking shelves and so forth,” said Stephen Mooser, health and safety director of the New York-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. In retail environments that operate 24 hours a day, the significant demands of the job frequently are overlooked, he said.

MSDs often are related to material handling tasks, and Putz noted the frequency and severity of injury often is related to the materials being handled. Businesses that experience extensive material handling of heavy products, high volume of sales and high customer demand seem to be at higher risk than retail businesses, where products are small and the work is more paced, he said.

In addition to goods being sold, other factors may make some retail outlets more susceptible to high injury rates. Mooser believes smaller retailers often tend to focus less on safety than larger chains do. “In general, there’s much less consciousness and awareness of health and safety issues,” he said, adding that clothing and small merchandise companies are particularly ignorant of hazards.

Staffing also often plays a role. “In many cases [due to] cutbacks, there are situations [where] people end up doing tasks that they perhaps aren’t trained to do,” Mooser noted. He said he has seen a number of instances in which layoffs force remaining employees to work longer hours and take on more responsibility. “We know from various instances that there is an increase of accidents that occurs often in the ninth, 10th, 11th hour that somebody’s working,” he said. 

Putz believes companies must set clear rules to mitigate these risks. “You need to establish limits on work time, overtime, etc., to comply with the nature of the work conditions,” he said.

Mitigating risk through training

One of the first steps to creating a safe workplace is proper training; however, Mooser warns that proper training alone is not enough to keep workers safe. “It has to do a lot with the circumstances that people work in,” he said. “Training has certain limits, especially when you have other demands.”

Putz stressed the importance of safety encompassing more than only a new-hire training session. “It must be a recognized business value,” he said. “When worker safety is part of the management style from the top down, lost-time injury rates go down because there is a recognition that safety hazards must be dealt with immediately before they lead to serious lost-time injuries.”

He noted that employees notice what matters most to employers, and their work performance will reflect that. Whether employers value “short-term productivity or following best practices, [workers] adjust their behavior accordingly.”

Safety by design

Even properly trained workers cannot perform their jobs optimally if the work environment does not allow it. Nowell noted that although workstation designs in stores have improved since the 1990s, employees still sometimes work in less-than-ideal environments.

Part of the problem, she said, is the fast-paced and customer service-based nature of the industry. While a checkout counter  may be designed to allow the worker to perform tasks in an ergonomically correct manner, “the reality is that you’ve got a line of customers, you want to get them in and out of the store quickly, and so you’re going to use the most effective way of scanning and bagging that there is,” Nowell said. And the quickest way is not always the safest.

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Mooser advocates involving employees in any sort of workplace changes because they are the ones on the floor doing the work and are most in tune with the demands and hazards of operations. “When [employers] seek new equipment or make any change in the workstation or how the work process goes, I think it makes a lot of sense to involve the employees in that,” he said.

Although many organizations may claim employees at every level are involved in safety, Mooser challenged employers to “make that meaningful by involving [workers] very much in the process of evaluating workstations, doing job hazard analysis. … I would urge employers to realize that there’s a lot of knowledge and experience that they have access to from the folks that are doing the job every day.”

In addition to evaluating the processes, employers should evaluate the physical work environment. Mooser noted many older facilities have surface hazards present, and Nowell commented that cramped storage areas can lead to dangerous situations. “The storerooms in the back of the stores are very small now. They keep shrinking them,” she said.

Experts agree that preventing injuries cannot be accomplished solely through training. Supervision of the workforce and analysis of the work environment are critical components to an effective safety program.

“When we look at the volume of what people have to do and the circumstances they have to do it under and some of the time pressures that gets created, then I think we need to do more of a job analysis and, as much as possible, reduce the risk,” Mooser said.


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