Business owners and their board of directors are embracing technology and AI designed to boost productivity. These technological advances are changing how warehouse workers work side by side with robots and computers to ensure businesses maximize production.
However, employers may be missing the ensuing trade-offs on their employee's physical health and mental well-being.
Warehouse Workers are Being Maxed Out
Warehouse workers are losing control over the pace of their work and instead are driven by a piece-rate system in many warehouses. When workers are paid by piece rate, employers can expect employees to suffer in silence if an injury occurs for fear of losing their financial incentives. In addition, those who work in low-wage occupations often have little control over how they work or when they may take breaks to sit or move about.
Despite ergonomics guidelines being in place for the last several decades, warehouse workers have not been able to keep pace with technology amplified productivity.
As a result, these workers are suffering higher rates of musculoskeletal disorders than in past years, when technology and AI were not so commonplace. Many of these injuries go unreported.
Technology enhancements have accelerated productivity demands for workers making it harder for them to take their breaks or modify their working postures. Many workers avoid sitting down, don’t take meals, or allocated rest breaks resulting in an increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders and other physical problems.
As stipulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration general duty clause, no worker should be made to work in an environment that is physically harming them.
Technology is Pushing Workers to Their Limits
Warehouses are automated to a certain extent, but some areas still require human beings to perform physical tasks. If musculoskeletal health is being compromised due to long periods of standing and not taking allocated breaks, how well are these jobs being done?
As an example, by using technology, Amazon calculates how fast each worker takes to complete a task, as well as Time off Task, or T.O.T which includes fixing broken machinery, bathroom breaks, and conversing with a co-worker.
Consider this. At Amazon, a single warehouse is more than several miles long. It takes half an hour to walk from one end to the other and oftentimes bathrooms are located only on one end of the warehouse, so for a warehouse worker to take a bathroom break they will exceed their 6-minute time off task allowance. Small obstacles such as this can lead to immense psychological stressors.
While Amazon shoppers have been thrilled at the speed of overnight shipping, another world has been crumbling inside these vast fulfillment centers. In the warehouses, any delay in output is monitored and flagged by computers; machines and AI are in control. Workers experience not only a loss of income from not meeting their production quotas, but this also creates a tremendous psychological burden and stress load on the worker, contributing to the onset of pain and work injury.
The Physical Side Effects of Productivity Monitoring
When employees know they are being monitored and every minute counts, it takes its toll on the body. Long periods of standing while performing repetitive tasks can be very uncomfortable and harmful physically affecting muscle, joints, circulation and more.
The CCOHS report states that prolonged standing effectively reduces blood supply to the lower extremities because it pools at the ankle due to a lack of movement or exercise afterward. Varicose veins can also result.
In addition, prolonged standing results in insufficient blood flow which accelerates the onset of fatigue and causes pain in the muscles of the legs, back, and neck (these are the muscles used to maintain an upright posture). This becomes dangerous as fatigue can cause workers to experience higher stress levels, poor eating habits, exhaustion, increasing the risk of injury and illness.
Many warehouse workers experience osteoarthritis and back pain over time. Combined with other co-morbidities such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure, further exacerbating the likelihood of musculoskeletal harm.
The Regulatory Side of Warehouse Work
While this continues, the governor of California has received Assembly Bill 701 already approved in the Assembly and Senate, which could soon be signed into law. This Bill 701 will force companies to be transparent and disclose the warehouse productivity requirements and work-speed metrics they set for employees.
Another recent legislation and wage order was passed in 2018 focusing on providing employees with suitable seating during the course of their workday. Under California wages orders, all employees must be provided with "suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits a seat." Furthermore, even when the nature of the work requires standing, an adequate number of seats must be "placed in reasonable proximity to the work area," and employees must be allowed to use those seats at times when it doesn't interfere with their job duties.
In the age of Industry 5.0, where humans, technology, and machines partner to accelerate production and performance, it is the human who must remain in control of the pace of the work. Humans will never outperform robotics. Employers must be mindful of how they incorporate robotics and technology into the workplace, avoiding it as a pacesetter for human performance. Using the science of ergonomics to ensure work is designed to fit human performance should always be the goal, not the other way around. By doing so, employees will thrive alongside machines.
Prevention is the Key
There are many indications of a link between work demands and musculoskeletal disorders. Employers have a wide range of work expectations that are influenced by a variety of variables such as the industry, job needs, equipment utilized, and the surrounding environment, among others.
To prevent or decrease the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders, it is essential to manage and guarantee that the job demands are compatible with the worker's capabilities.
This examination should begin as soon as the workplace is created, with an estimation of actual task needs for the workplace and the assignment of appropriate resources to meet those expectations.
The risks arise when the work demands exceed the capabilities of the employees, resulting in an accident, damage, illness, or disease.
Identifying the capabilities and abilities of each employee while attempting to assign a job position that fits those abilities and limitations is also critical. This will result in the best possible scenario for both the business and the employees.
Companies are now exploring methods to enhance the fit of job-workers to decrease the number of illnesses and diseases, which are causing a significant amount of economic loss. Using pre-hire agility screens to ensure workers have the physical stamina to perform the essential functions is one way employers can better match the job to the worker.
Furthermore, having a sound ergonomics process in place to analyze work demands and apply engineering and administrative strategies to mitigate these concerns is paramount.
In reality, the most successful businesses are those that encourage healthy behaviors among their employees and design work with ergonomics in mind. The initiatives created to enhance the wellbeing and health of employees are critical in mitigating the risk of certain musculoskeletal disorders and improving the quality of life for those who work in warehouse environments.
If you're ready to start implementing ergonomic principles to keep your warehouse safe, grab our free eBook!