Breakthrough Strategies: Distributing Safety

These centers, common to many industries, have a host of proprietary safety and morale challenges.

WANT to break through vexing problems? By understanding underlying methods of turnaround change in one area, you can apply these strategies to other longstanding challenges.

Take, for example, operations common to many companies: Distribution (or “Logistics”) Centers that distribute, receive, and warehouse product or parts. From what we’ve seen, these centers often have more than their fair share of injuries.

And no wonder.

First off, recognize that Distribution Centers (DCs) are predominantly designed to maximize throughput (“Get it out!”), not necessarily for ergonomics nor employee safety; on top of this, most companies have steadily winched any slack out of the workload.

Also, DCs have a range of proprietary physical exposures. Many workers are on the move much of the time with lots of reaching into bins to handpick and retrieve objects, case stacking, palletizing, loading/unloading trucks, manually shrink-wrapping smaller loads, aiming RF scanners, using difficult-to-control pallet jacks, and more. Those who drive lift trucks have other “opportunities” for injury, from stepping onto and off the lifts, using joysticks, and driving in twisted positions. Add in a wide array of mental contributors to potential accidents and injuries. Work that can alternate between go-go and repetitive can lead to attentional drift. Change—and not for the better, in workers’ perception—has come to many DCs. For example, most forklift drivers formerly drove in the loaded (backward) position half the time as they transported loads; Just-in-time and other efficiency methods have drivers with full loads 90 percent of the time—more twisting. Now, RF scanners supplant people being able to occasionally get off lift trucks to read package loads, limiting potential tension relief.

To these ingredients, stir in cultural issues that are markedly different from traditional manufacturing jobs, and you have potential recipe for safety and morale issues. These may include working with minimal supervision, up and down pace (either too busy or too static), doing “break-in work” when conveyers and equipment are down. Combine all the above with an independent DC worker mentality. Mix and pour, and what we often see is an increasing level of dissatisfaction and higher injuries.

Effective Solutions
But there’s more than hope. We’ve worked with numerous DC operations in many industries and have found it possible to make significant turnarounds in safety performance and culture by tailoring solutions to unique DC culture. So what’s effective?

¦ Tune your perceptions; acknowledge the unique aspects of DC exposures and culture. Whenever you find that traditional plant-based approaches to safety and cultural change don’t work to a high level, remind yourself to assess those forces that drive as well as those that restrain safety performance improvement. (I’ve listed a few above; probably there are other factors in your company.)

¦ Target the three biggest problems, no more. Rather than attempting to correct everything at once, restrict initial interventions to highest DC exposures, especially to those that affect worker comfort and job satisfaction. How will you know this? (See the next point.)

¦ Distribute involvement early, both in cataloguing safety issues and concerns and in effecting change. We’ve seen great success in training DC workers to become peer instructors, coaches, and change catalysts. They are then an ongoing impetus for coworkers’ incorporating desired behaviors, skills, and attitudes into a wide range of activities.

¦ Enlist management as a central part of the solution. To overcome tensions between management and workers, develop a set of specific, easy-to-accomplish- with-minimal-time actions that leaders can take to enhance management- worker communications. These might include acknowledgment of even small accomplishments, non-blame incident investigations and messages, safety motivation that is positive rather than scare-based, reduction of frustrationladen communications, and more.

¦ Specifically, involve them in the peer catalyst process, introducing expectations, strategizing with them on how to make needed changes, and participating in identifying unique DC problems.

¦ Provide practical training that addresses specific DC issues in reducing or neutralizing external risks. For example, DC workers can learn methods for boosting leverage while palletizing and case stacking, how to best control pallet jacks, safest ways for getting onto and off lift trucks, how to reach/ grab/carry parts with maximum control, using joysticks while minimizing forces concentrating on the controlling hand, how to best turn while reducing pressure on the back and neck, and, as important, skills for directing, sustaining, and switching their attention with shifting DC workload demands.

For many companies, DC performance issues can be tough nuts to open. But experience has shown you can make breakthroughs in safety by putting aside past approaches and then spearheading fresh, logistical actions.

This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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