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About the Author

Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

October 24, 2012

Are Companies Increasing Workplace Risk When Hiring Temporary Workers?

Companies Must "Improve-the-Fit" between Work Tasks & Workers Capabilities

We are now in the busiest sales period of the year for order fulfillment centers. For many companies the end of the year peak can be 3x or more the average. Even in the most efficient and mechanized distribution centers, there are still lots of manual tasks to be performed and companies typically double or triple their workforce for the last 100 days or so of the year. That adds up to a lot of temporary “hands-on-deck” and an increased risk for work related injuries.

Various studies have shown that the main risk factors (or conditions) associated with the development of injuries in manual material handling tasks include the following:


• Awkward postures - bending, twisting

• Repetitive motions - frequent reaching, lifting, carrying

• Forceful exertions - carrying or lifting heavy loads

• Pressure points - grasping (or contact from) loads, leaning against parts or surfaces that are hard or have sharp edges

• Static postures - maintaining fixed positions for a long period of time

Holste Says:

It is in the best interest of the both the company and the worker to pay close attention to DC environmental and ergonomic issues for safety reasons.
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Repeated or continual exposure to one or more of the above factors initially may lead to fatigue and discomfort. However, over time injury to the back, shoulders, hands, wrists, or other parts of the body may occur. MSD (muscular skeletal disorder) injuries include damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels. In addition, poor environmental conditions such as extreme heat, cold, noise, and poor lighting, typical to many DCs, may increase workers’ chances of developing other types of problems.

The amount of training that companies can provide for temporary workers is limited. Yet, it is in the best interest of the both the company and the worker to pay close attention to DC environmental and ergonomic issues for safety reasons. While accidents will happen – nobody should go home from the job with chronic pain and/or injury.

Types of Ergonomic Improvements

In general, there are (2) types of ergonomic improvements that can be made to “improve the fit” between the demands of work tasks and the workers’ capabilities to perform them:

Operational Improvements – These include rearranging, modifying, redesigning, providing or replacing tools, equipment, workstations, packaging, parts, processes, or systems. The Materials Handling Industry of America and the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association are comprised of many diverse and specialized manufacturers and engineering firms offering a large variety of solutions.

Industrial Engineering Improvements – Here the focus is on observing how different workers perform the same task to get ideas for improving work practices or organizing the work, such as:


• Alternate heavy tasks with light tasks

• Provide variety in jobs to eliminate or reduce repetition (overuse of the same muscle groups)

• Adjust work schedules, work pace, or work practices

• Provide recovery time (multiple short rest breaks)

• Modify work practices so that workers perform work within their power zone (above the knees, below the shoulders, and close to the body) and provide training on these techniques.

• Rotate workers through jobs that use different muscles, body parts, or postures.

Cross training, can help reduce workers' exposure to risk factors by limiting the amount of time workers spend on "problem jobs". However, these measures may still expose workers to risk factors that can lead to injuries. For these reasons, the most effective way to eliminate "problem jobs" is to change them. This can be done by putting into place the appropriate engineering improvements (mechanized and/or automated solutions) and modifying work practices accordingly. Companies should seek answers to questions such as:


• Why are workplace injuries occurring?

• Which tasks are most likely to cause injuries?

• What to do about problem jobs once you find them?

• How to reduce workers' exposure to injuries?

One of the best ways to answer these questions is to be proactive in your problem solving. This simply means finding the problem first by looking thoroughly around the DC rather than waiting for problems to occur. Then improve the fit between the work and the worker by putting the appropriate changes into place. And be sure to do at least the following:

  Talk to various employees. Brainstorming with engineers, maintenance personnel, floor managers, supervisors, and production workers is a great way to generate ideas.
Contact others in your industry. Network at trade shows. Chances are good that your peers have already been down this path and have solutions that could also apply to your problems, saving you time, money, and effort.
Look through trade publications and equipment catalogs. Focus on solutions dealing with the types of problems/challenges you are trying to solve. Supply Chain Digest also provides an opportunity for you to "Ask a Question" on its website located on the bottom right of the home page.
Talk with MH industry experts and providers. They draw on experience from a variety of MH applications and will be able to share ideas that would never occur to you.
Consult with an expert in workplace ergonomics. An ergonomics specialist can “cut-to-the-chase” providing insights into available improvements, the cost, and the potential value. Unnecessary handling and duplication of material and product movement is expensive and a misuse of valuable resources.

Much of the above was summarized from a 2007 report “Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling” which was prepared for publication by the Cal/OSHA Consultation Service, Research and Education Unit, Division of Occupational Safety and Health, California Department of Industrial Relations. It was distributed under the provisions of the Library Distribution Act and Government Code Section 11096. The 68 page 3MB PDF file is available at no cost at the MHIA Bookstore at

Final Thoughts

Even in the worst of economic times, eliminating high risk manual handling operations makes perfect sense. Making tasks less physically demanding and more efficient is the first step to higher productivity and lower operating cost.

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