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Cliff Holste

Supply Chain Digest
Material Handling Editor

Logistics News - Sorting It Out

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.

April 19, 2017

Sorting It Out : Workplace Tasks Verses Workers Capabilities

Reducing Repetitive Strain Injuries Key to Improving Productivity


While reporting from ProMat 2017, Dan Gilmore and I came across a company that develops and manufactures lifting solutions based on vacuum technologies. This got our attention because we have not seen this type of equipment widely deployed in domestic DCs. The company Vaculex is headquartered in Sweden and has offices in Charlotte, NC. You can view our video report here: See Vaculex Clip

Holste Says...

Cross training, can help reduce workers’ exposure to risk factors by limiting the amount of time workers spend on repetitive tasks.

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There is of course lots of challenging repetitive tasks within the typical DC workplace. Dan and I feel that this is an important issue that for various reasons does not get the attention domestically that it deserves. Studies have shown that the main risk factors (or conditions) associated with the development of workplace injuries 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

These studies have also shown that 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 may increase workers’ chances of developing other types of problems. 

The amount of training that companies can provide workers is limited. Yet, it is in the best interest of the both the company and the worker to pay close attention to 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 workplace tasks and the workers’ capabilities to perform them: 

(1) 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. 

(2) 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 repetitive tasks. However, these measures may still expose workers to risk factors that can lead to injuries. For these reasons, the most effective way to reduce the risk factor is to change the way the task is preformed. 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 challenging tasks 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 studying and analyzing operations 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 industry consultants, experts and service providers. They draw on experience from a variety of applications and will be able to share ideas that may never occur to you.

  • Consult with an ergonomic specialist. 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.

Editors Note: Much of the above was summarized from a  report titled “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

Many countries throughout the world have very strict laws limiting what workers can do. It could be that wide spread adoption and enforcement of these laws is driving the use of assisted mechanical devices such as vacuum lifts and item picking robots. However, in the absence of laws, making tasks less physically demanding and more efficient makes perfect sense. In addition to opening up physical challenging jobs to a larger worker population, it is the first step to higher productivity, lower operating cost, and happier workers.

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