Promoting Ergonomics During Palletizing
Muscle strain is a serious problem for many warehouse operations, and it’s not difficult to pinpoint the cause of the issue. Heavy lifting tends to occur when building and unloading pallets, and in many cases, workers pay the price; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, warehouse staff suffered twice as many musculoskeletal injuries than workers in other private industries in 2012.
The 2014 Liberty Mutual Safety Index reports that overexertion was the leading cause of workplace injuries. Compensation for these injuries totaled 15.1 billion dollars in 2012, the latest year for which data is available. According to the Index, overexertion is caused by several distinct bodily motions, all of which can be involved in building pallets without variable-height workstations.
- Manual lifting
- Pushing or pulling
- Carrying loads
- Throwing items
- Manually suspending loads
Fortunately, there are ways to limit the risks associated with these motions. Ergonomics research has allowed for specialized industrial equipment — including stationary lift tables, mobile lift tables, and a variety of tabletop options — designed to prevent injuries and repetitive stress associated with pallet-building activities. This type of equipment can also improve productivity, but as is the case with any type of warehouse equipment, workers need to understand the equipment in order to see the benefits of the technology.
Staying Safe with Better Pallet Building Practices
In partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has studied the tasks involved in building and unloading pallets. Their 2007 Ergonomic Guidelines recommend a few easy tips to ensure safe handling of pallet loads:
- Arrange pallet loads so that workers can lift materials without going outside of the "power zone" — defined as the space above your knees, closest to your body and below your relaxed shoulders. Lift tables are ideal for this improvement because they can be adjusted as layers of material are added to or removed from pallets.
- Avoid manually lifting or lowering loads to floor level. The best practice is to raise pallets with an adjustable work surface. Lift tables with rotating surfaces can make this process significantly easier, faster, and more intuitive for workers.
- Use a turntable to prevent the need for holding loads away from the body, outside of the ergonomic power zone.
- Implement variable-height workstations for pallet builders and unpackers. In order to keep work loads within each worker's ergonomic range of motion, it’s important to adjust tabletops to match staff height. This is especially true when building or unloading pallets, since the actual height of the work changes with each layer of material.
Do Pallet Lift Tables Protect Workers?
Before deciding whether or not to invest in pallet lift tables, you should consider the long-term benefits. A case study from the March 2013 issue of the trade publication Industrial Engineer illustrates how better ergonomics can pay off — even on a very small scale.
The study describes a bakery supply factory that traditionally loaded pails of pie filling onto ground-level pallets. Before intervention, this task led to around two back injuries per year, with an average cost of $18,000 per claim (and that’s not even considering the costs of hiring and training replacement workers). A team of industrial engineers trained in lean practices decided to design out floor-level pallet-building. They installed roller conveyors to eliminate carrying the pails, and added self-leveling lift tables with turntable surfaces to the palletizing station. These simple changes led to yearly savings of $66,000 in labor and compensation costs, with a return on investment of only 36 days.
Your operation’s results will vary — it’s hard to expect a 36-day ROI in every case, of course, especially if you run a large facility and you’ve already taken steps to reduce injuries — but the point is that it’s easy to understate the true value of ergonomics in the warehouse.
Most employees will agree that palletizing is physically demanding work. Lift tables employ the modern principles of ergonomics to reduce repetitive stress, and fewer injuries mean a better workplace and a more efficient workforce. Pallet building is a crucial task in most warehouses, and as many operation managers have already discovered, high-quality palletizing equipment pays off.
"DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2007-131: Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling." National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 2007. PDF. 18 June 2015.
Fernandez, Jeffrey and Brandy Ware. "Ergonomics: Warehouse Ergonomics/Tips And Techniques To Decrease Injury Risk." EHS Today 7 Mar. 2014. Web. 18 June 2015.
Johnson, Denise. "Top 10 Causes of Workplace Injuries: Liberty Mutual." Claims Journal News. Wells Media Group, Inc., 14 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 June 2015.
Kester, Jack. "A Lean Look at Ergonomics."Industrial Engineer: IE 45.3 (2013): 28. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 18 June 2015.