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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

September 16, 2015

Logistics News: DC Environment Exposes Seasonal Workers & Companies to Numerous Risk Factors

Improving Physical Conditions Key to Managing Workplace Safety

Holste Says:

Cross training, can help reduce workers' exposure to risk factors by limiting the amount of time workers spend on "problem jobs".
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out : Shippers Operating in a Quick Response Environment Need Real-Time Information

Sorting It Out : Product Sequencing - The "Smart" Way to Build Mixed SKU Pallet Loads

Sorting It Out: What Kind Of Investment Does It Take To Implement Sortation In A DC?

Sorting It Out : Laser & Camera Based Scanning Solutions

Sorting It Out : The Challenge of Incorporating a Business Within a Business


A busy distribution center can be an intimidating workplace environment especially during peak shipping periods. Even in the most up-to-date, efficient and mechanized DCs, there are still lots of tasks requiring manual labor. Companies typically double or triple their workforce for the last 100 days of the year. That adds up to a lot of inexperienced “hands-on-deck” and an elevated risk for accidents.


In addition to the obvious dangers associated with forklift trucks and pedestrian traffic, various studies have shown that the main risk factors with manual operations include the following:



Awkward postures - bending, twisting, grasping loads


Repetitive motions – frequent reaching, lifting, carrying


Forceful exertions – carrying or lifting heavy loads


Pressure points – leaning against parts or surfaces that are hard or have sharp edges


Static postures – maintaining fixed positions for a long period of time

These are referred to as Muscular Skeletal Disorder (MSD) injuries and include damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels. In addition, poor environmental conditions such as extreme heat, cold, and noise may increase workers’ chances of developing other types of problems.


By law, employers are responsible for informing employees about OSHA regulations , as well as various safety and health alerts. According to OSHA, employers must post health and safety program information in prominent workplace locations. But how many employees really look at those signs?


A true safety culture does not happen overnight; a successful transition to a safety centric workplace takes time. Companies can help smoothly enforce this transition move by consistently displaying safety reminders to supervisors and employees in unique, visually stimulating ways, across an array of digital screens.


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. Nobody should go home from the job with chronic pain and/or injury.

The law requires employers to provide their employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers. The Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets and enforces protective workplace safety and health standards.

RMG Networks, a leader in intelligent visual communication, found that for $1 invested in safety communication, companies saw $6 saved. Plus 63% of people reported that digital signage catches their eye.


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

Talk with industry experts and providers. They draw on experience from a variety of 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.

Final Thoughts

Making tasks less physically demanding and more efficient is the first step to higher productivity and lower operating cost. Peak shipping periods can and should be, opportunities to improve operations. With higher shipping volumes and increases labor, investments in order fulfillment and customer value added service will produce a better ROI.




Recent Feedback

Great article. I am a little suprised not to see BNSF in the mix while I understand their financial mode/operation is a little different. 

That would only give a complete perspective with all the players in the pool.

Senior Consultant
May, 22 2016

Surprised to see Home Depot fall off the list; thought they were winning with Sync?

Mike O'Brien
Senior editor
Access Intelligence
May, 26 2016

Using the right tool for the right job has always been a best practice and one of the reasons, we feel, that RFID has never taken off in the DC as exponentially as pundits have been forecasting since 2006. While these results may seem surprising to those solely focused on barcode scanning, the adoption of multi-modal technologies in the DC makes perfect sense for greater worker efficiency and productivity.

Julie Leonard
Marketing Director
Jun, 27 2016

The IoT Platform in this year's (2016) Hype Cycle is on the ascending side, entering the "Peak of Inflated Expectation" area. How does this compare to the IoT positions of the previous years, which have already peaked in 2015? Isn't this contradicting in itself?

Editor's Note: 

You are right, Internet of Things (IoT) was at the top of the Garter new technology hype curve not long ago. As you noted, however, this time the placement was for “IoT Platforms,” a category of software tools from a good number of vendors to manage connectivity, data communications and more with IoT-enabled devices in the field.

So, this is different fro IoT generally, though a company deploying connected things obviously needs some kind of platform – hoe grown or acquired – to manage those functions.

Why IoT generically is not on the curve this year I wondered myself.



Carsten Baumann
Strategic Alliance Manager
Schneider Electric
Aug, 19 2016

I agree totally with Mr. Schneider.

I have always lived by "put it in writing" all my work life.  I am a firm believer of the many benefits of putting everything in writing and I try to teach it to as many people as I can.

This "putting in writing" can also be used for almost anything else.  Here are some general benefits (only some) of "putting in writing":

1. Everything is better understood between parties involved.  There are lots of people types who need something visual to improve their understanding.
2. Everyone can read to review and correct anything misunderstood.  This will ensure that all parties concerned confirm the details of the agreements as correct.  This is further enhanced by having all parties involved sign off on a hard copy or confirm via reply email.
3. Everything has a proof.  Not to belittle the element of trust among parties involved, it is always safest to have tangible proof of what was agreed on.
4. There will be a document to refer to at any time by any one who needs clarification.
5. The documentation can be useful historical data for any future endeavor.  It provides inputs for better decisions on related situations in the future.
6. This can also be compiled and used to teach future new team members.  "Learn from the past" it is said.

There are many more benefits.  Mr. Schneider is very correct about his call to "put it in writing".

Jo Ann Tudtud-Navalta
Materials Management Manager
Chong Hua Hospital, Cebu City, Philippines
Aug, 21 2016

U.S. companies are reshoring and foreign companies are investing in U.S. locations to be in close proximity to the U.S. market for customer responsiveness, flexibility, quality control, and for the positive branding of "Made in USA".

Reshoring including FDI balanced offshoring in 2015 as it did in 2014. In comparison, in 2000-2007 the U.S. lost net about 200,000 manufacturing jobs per year to offshoring. That is huge progress to celebrate!

The Reshoring Initiative Can Help. In order to help companies decide objectively to reshore manufacturing back to the U.S. or offshore, the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative's free Total Cost of Ownership Estimator can help corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring.

Sandy Montalbano
Reshoring Initiative
Aug, 24 2016

 Good article!  I am sending this to my colleagues who work with me.  We have to keep this in mind.  Thanks!

Transportation Manager
Aug, 30 2016

SCM is all about getting the order delivered to the Customer on date/ time requested because happy Customers = Revenue. Using the right tools to do the right job is important and SCM is heavily dependent on sophisticated ERP systems to get right real data info ASP.

I've worked in a DC with more than 400,000 line items and measured the Productivity of Pickers by how many "picks" per day.

I've learned that one doesn't have to remind Germany about your EDI orders.

Ian Jansen
Sep, 14 2016

Challenge - to build and sustain effective relationships at the level of the organizations that are responsible for effectively coordinating and colaborating in an otherwise highly competitive environment 

Don Benson
Warehouse Coach
Sep, 15 2016

Of course we all need to up our game. We need to move with the times, and always be one step ahead of what the future will bring.

Fulfillment Logistics UK Ltd
Oct, 02 2016

Thanks for the article, but I know there's a lot more to this issue than just the pay rates. Please check out my blogs on the subject at

Mike Dargis
President of asset-based carrier based in the Midwest
Zip Xpress Inc. (at
Oct, 03 2016

Lora, great article! I agree that companies choose the 'safe' solution more often than not. My solution is a bolt-on for legacy ERP's and we even face challeneges of customer adoption. Most like to play it safe and choose an ERP upgrade, which is more costly, time consuming, and has lower ROI across the board. Would love to learn more about your company, we are always looking for partnerships.


Inventory Specialist
Nov, 16 2016

This is a game changer in GE's production and prototyping.  It also has huge implications across the GE global supply chain with regard to the management of their support and spare parts network. 

Bob McIntyre
National Account Executive
DBK Concepts LLC
Nov, 21 2016