Limiting manual lifting

12 December 2012

EU regulations regarding manual handling are set to tighten, strengthening the case for automation argues Pieter Feenstra, md of Swisslog UK Companies are faced with tightening material handling regulations throughou

EU regulations regarding manual handling are set to tighten, strengthening the case for automation argues Pieter Feenstra, md of Swisslog UK

Companies are faced with tightening material handling regulations throughout Europe.While the UK often lags behind some other European countries, more stringent regulations are expected to be enforced here too.

Specifically, the maximum limit for weight manually lifted per shift is shortly expected to be lowered throughout the EU, which will have major implications for any site with manual operations in place.

Within Europe, Denmark's material handling regulations are possibly the most strict.While still based on European regulations, Denmark's interpretation places employee welfare at the highest priority regardless of the effect on costs. This strict outlook sees Denmark paving the way for the rest of Europe.

The regulations are driven by health and safety concerns.

Manual load handling can involve lengthy periods of work carrying out repetitive movements or in uncomfortable postures, and is therefore a major risk factor for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs have been identified by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration as the most common of all reported work-related health problems.

Material handling issues are climbing the corporate agenda of many UK companies. Increasing awareness of the impact of MSDs and of health and safety legislation already in place are at the crux of this trend and are forcing companies to improve their warehouse operations.

Companies wising up to these impacts are keen to improve their solutions to eliminate injuries in the warehouse and also to reduce the associated costs.

Sickness absence costs alone can be substantial. Research shows that the total cost per employee per year of sickness is approximately 9% of payroll costs, but companies should also consider other (often hidden) costs such as increased insurance premiums incurred by accidents caused in the workplace. MSDs and back pain alone costs UK employers £600m per year without considering other incidents often common to warehouse environments such as trapping or crushing body parts / clothing.

Injuries also lead to reduced productivity; either of an individual who continues to work while in discomfort or of a complete site, where productivity can be quickly affected by a reduced workforce. This can soon lead to customer orders not being satisfied and thus result in serious financial penalties.

The many issues surrounding injuries in the warehouse discussed above provide companies with a strong business case for investment in improving their material handling solutions and are clearly driving a trend towards less intensive manual automation. Since it is evident that employee productivity can be increased by automating certain processes within a warehouse, more and more companies are looking at the many options available; a popular option being pockets of automation (standalone areas of automation, only where justified).

Fully automated picking/packing solutions in particular can enable large efficiencies, especially in the retail industry where ecommerce has taken over a large percentage of total orders demanding picking solutions to deal with smaller and more sophisticated orders.

As companies are keen to reduce the strain which heavy lifting can have on employees, the UK is also seeing a drive for innovations in ergonomic pick/pack stations where lifting is replaced with sliding at ergonomic heights. Such solutions have been proven to reduce work related injuries, increase operator productivity and ensure a comfortable working environment.

When employees are comfortable, they can work for longer periods and are more likely to improve productivity levels.

Swisslog has worked with a number of customers to provide ergonomic solutions and reduce the costly repercussions caused by MSDs and other injuries caused in the warehouse. Experienced system designers can identify and propose often simple changes to a site layout, which can have a huge impact on its daily productivity.

An example of such a modification is an ergonomic work station installation for a leading retailer (pictured left).Here, a sloped discharge shute delivers garments to the ergonomic work station where the operator places them into storage totes, thus eliminating the need for the them to twist and turn. Another example is for a major European book distributor (pictured above) where heavy books are collated into cartons on a sliding pick table.

It is only a matter of time before UK regulations are tightened and companies should start to prepare for this now.