Safety First: Preventing musculoskeletal disorders in your warehouse

by Sandra Patterson
Sandra Patterson, BSc, CCPE, CRSP, is a technical specialist, ergonomics at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services.

Sprains and strains account for almost 40 percent of injuries registered with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. That’s why it makes sense to take a close look at potential hazards within your warehouse that could lead to musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs.

MSDs are injuries and disorders of the musculoskeletal system, which includes the muscles, tendons, nerves and other soft tissues. Many body parts can be affected. The back is the most common, but the shoulders, neck, elbows, hands, and wrists are also frequently involved.

Simple, low-cost solutions are often all that’s needed to offset the impact of these hazards on both the employee and the organization.

MSDs can occur in the workplace when the demands of the job exceed the capabilities of the worker. They’re usually associated with these three main hazards:
1 Force when moving product and equipment;
2 Repetition when using the same body parts repeatedly, with few breaks or chances to rest;
3 Awkward posture when the muscle tissue is put at a mechanical disadvantage.

One of these hazards alone may not result in an injury, but the combined effect of all these hazards can create the perfect storm for a soft tissue injury. In a warehouse, we often see these hazards at play with sub-standard conditions, poor lifting techniques or habits that threaten the soft tissues over time. For example:

  • Repetitive, awkward postures like bending, reaching, twisting, and lifting with limited head room to access items in the pick location and to build a pallet.
  • Heavy, awkward lifting to handle large or unstable loads; holding the load away from the body; or, heavy lifting after periods of prolonged sitting.
  • Worn or damaged lift truck seats with limited suspension or shock absorption.
  • Working with awkward back and neck postures when operating equipment; twisting through the trunk instead of shifting the hips to get a clear view when travelling in reverse or looking overhead to an elevated pick location.
  • Exerting extra force to push an overloaded cart or struggling to steer a cart with damaged casters.
  • Working in cold storage areas where dexterity and movement may be more difficult due to the cold.

Fortunately, many of these hazards can be managed by taking a few key steps, many of which require little or no cost to implement. Try implementing these measures:

  • Involve employees when identifying and controlling MSD hazards. Employees doing the job often know what parts of it cause them the most pain and discomfort.
  • During monthly safety inspections look for ‘home remedies’. Changes made by workers to their tools and equipment, like wrapping extra padding around a handle, may identify potential problem areas and solutions.
  • Use a regular maintenance schedule to ensure equipment is repaired or replaced to avoid unnecessary effort.
  • Use a mobile leveler device on the forks of the lift truck to optimize the handling height when building pallets.
  • Raise heavier items up off the floor with one or more pallets or add an adjustable lift table so lifting can be done in more neutral postures.
  • Verify you’re using the appropriate mechanical material handling equipment for the task.
  • When possible, speak to suppliers to provide options for box size, weight or pallet configurations.
  • Provide pull sticks for smaller items to minimize excessive reaching.
  • Provide training on MSD hazards and safe lifting techniques for both staff and supervisors. This will help increase awareness of the importance of using good body mechanics and proper techniques.
  • Know which heavy or larger items require a two-person lift and promote a culture that rewards supportive behaviour.

MSD hazards pose a significant threat to warehouse staff. Having just one person off work with a back injury could significantly impact your operation. You could run into scheduling issues with other team members who have to backfill.

Or, you could run into challenges with respect to re-integration because once an MSD has occurred, the chance of recurrence is higher. And that doesn’t even take into account how debilitating it can be for the employee who has been injured.

Prevention of these types of injuries is key. I’ve outlined a few things companies and employees can do to recognize and reduce the risk of MSDs but if you are unsure, consider an ergonomic assessment of your workplace. A qualified ergonomist can isolate the specific hazards and offer solutions to ensure your staff are working smarter, not harder.

After all, work shouldn’t hurt.