OSHA takes ergonomics to the supermarket

Voluntary guidelines released

From the baker who spends all day squeezing frosting onto cakes, to the produce manager who moves hundreds of pounds of ice onto the displays in his department, to the clerk who pulls and scans countless items as they move through checkout, a retail grocery store has dozens of opportunities for on-the-job injuries caused by heavy lifting or repetitive motion. With this in mind, OSHA has issued industry-specific guidelines for prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in retail grocery stores, combined supermarkets and discount stores, and warehouse retailers (www.osha.gov/ergonomics/guidelines/retailgrocery/index.html). The recommendations do not address nonretail grocery warehouse operations or convenience stores.

"The grocery industry has its share of physical demands, and basically, we think the recommendations are very thorough and very good recommendations," says Deborah E. Lechner, PT, MS, president of the Occupational Health Special Interest Group, American Physical Therapy Association (Orthopaedic Section), and president of ErgoScience Inc. of Birmingham, AL, a consulting firm that works with employers on injury prevention in the workplace.

Heavy lifting, repetitive motions are culprits

Chief among the ergonomic risk factors for MSDs among grocery workers are force, repetition, awkward posture, and static postures, according to the OSHA report. These factors result in disorders that include muscle strains, back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, epicondylitis, and trigger finger.

The guidelines present suggestions for employee education to help prevent muscle and back strains and other lifting-related injuries, and discuss new technologies and equipment in use in some stores — such as shelves and cases that are designed to eliminate the need for employees to maneuver heavy items from the front to the back of display cases, and equipment that cuts the work and repetitive motion necessary to pack produce cases with ice. Less strenuous work can lead to MSDs if the work is repetitive — scanning groceries, squeezing frosting dispensers, or slicing deli meats, for example. Carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger are among the complaints that arise from repetitive motion.

The guidelines issued for the grocery industry, like the ergonomics guidelines released for other industries, are voluntary. OSHA says the guidelines are intended to build upon the progress the industries are making on their own in addressing on-the-job injuries.

National Grocers Association senior vice president and general counsel Thomas F. Wenning says reducing workplace injury rates is a primary goal for the grocery industry, and stresses that the industry has made great strides on its own in that effort. "The grocery industry has reduced occupational injuries by a third over the last 10 years, from 12.5 per 100 full-time workers in1992, to 8.1 in 2001," he points out.

While the grocers’ association agrees with the guidelines, Wenning says, it wants assurance from OSHA that the voluntary guidelines don’t lead to enforced standards. "Even the perception that OSHA might issue general duty clause citations based on the voluntary guidelines would undermine our ongoing and very successful ergonomics efforts," he warns.

Lechner says while there is debate over voluntary guidelines vs. enforceable standards, she contends that employers’ desire to avoid injuries and their associated costs will drive the ergonomics movement. "Companies are interested in ergonomics because it saves them money, so you don’t have to mandate it," she says. While there are costs associated with implementing ergonomic measures in the workplace, Lechner says there are ways to balance the costs of putting the measures into practice against the cost of paying for injuries associated with not taking the preventative steps.

The grocery industry is the latest to receive industry-specific ergonomic guidelines from OSHA. The nursing home industry and poultry processors have both been the focus of previously released guidelines, and the shipyard industry currently is under study. Guidelines for meatpackers were released in 1993. "OSHA is looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for injuries, and choosing the industries with the greatest number of reported injuries, and I think they’re choosing the right ones," Lechner says.

For more information on OSHA ergonomics guidelines for the grocery industry, contact:

Deborah Lechner, PT, MS, president, American Physical Therapy Association, Orthopaedic Section, Occupational Health Special Interest Group. Phone: (866) 779-6447. E-mail deborahlechner@ergoscience.com.

Thomas J. Wenning, JD, senior vice president and general counsel, National Grocers Association, (703) 516-0700.