Why Ergonomics Matter in the Workplace

Susan Griepsma
| Jun 22, 2022
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If your company is like most, about five percent of your warehouse or distribution center workers will experience some type of on-the-job injury this year. That figure represents not only a terrible human cost, but also a significant financial impact on your company—on average, each workplace injury costs a company $150,000.

That's why employers bear both a moral and a financial (not to mention legal) responsibility to structure their workplaces to maximize safety and minimize the threat of injury for their workers.

But what's the best approach to ensuring that your warehouse or distribution center workspaces are as safe as possible?

Research shows that focusing on workplace ergonomics pays big dividends for worker safety and productivity.

What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics is all about fitting the work environment to the needs and capabilities of the people who function within it. As the UK's Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors explains,

Rather than expecting people to adapt to a design that forces them to work in an uncomfortable, stressful or dangerous way, ergonomists and human factors specialists seek to understand how a product, workplace or system can be designed to suit the people who need to use it.

According to OSHA, 65% of all warehouse injuries are caused by manual activities such as lifting and carrying heavy materials. That's why the biggest threats to warehouse and distribution center workers are from musculoskeletal soft tissue injuries, which occur twice as often in those settings as in other industrial environments. It's just these kinds of injury exposures that good ergonomic design aims to minimize. As the CDC puts it,

The goal of ergonomics (i.e. the scientific study of people at work) is to prevent soft tissue injuries and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused by sudden or sustained exposure to force, vibration, repetitive motion, and awkward posture.

Why ergonomics is crucial in warehouse and distribution center workplaces

In a typical warehouse setting, workers are required to reach, bend, and stretch on a regular basis as they handle boxes, equipment, tools, etc. Such items are often difficult for workers to reach without engaging in motions that present a threat of musculoskeletal damage.

The goal of ergonomics in a warehouse or distribution center is to structure the work environment so as to help workers accomplish their tasks without having to move their bodies in ways that invite soft tissue injuries. As an added bonus, an ergonomic workspace is almost guaranteed to be a more productive one.

How attention to ergonomic design can reduce workplace injuries

Instituting good ergonomics in industrial settings begins with proper design of the work environment. This may include elements such as:

  • Positioning equipment and other items at heights that allow workers to reach them (for pick and pack/unpack operations, for example) without unnaturally extending or twisting their bodies.
  • Designing workflows to reduce repetitive activities that can cause workers to become dangerously tired during the workday. Fatigue is one of the biggest causes of workplace injury.
  • Eliminating clutter on floors and in aisles.
  • Guarding against falling hazards, such as wet spots or debris on the floor. Slips, trips, and falls are among the top three causes of workplace injuries.
  • Ensuring that workers are properly trained on workplace safety, both generally, and with regard to their particular work environment.

The role of ergonomic material handling systems in creating a safe workplace

According to the CDC, research indicates that one of the best ways to avoid the strains manual processes impose on the bodies of workers is by employing ergonomic material handling systems. Such equipment allows workers to reach or move objects without putting undue stress on their musculoskeletal systems.

A good example of the kind of ergonomic material handling equipment that can help maximize workplace safety in warehouse and distribution center environments is the crane in its various forms.

Cranes allow workers to move large or heavy objects without depending on their own muscle power to do so. According to David Butwid, former Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing at Gorbel, many companies have begun restricting workers to lifting no more than about 40 lbs on their own. For any objects that exceed that weight, a crane or other ergonomic lifting device must be used. As Butwid observes,

"Research at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has shown that our crane systems can enable 90 percent of female workers and 100 percent of male workers to handle loads under 1,000 pounds safely and productively."

Butwid goes on to note that it is an accepted ergonomic principle that workers must not exceed one third of their aerobic work capacity for extended periods. Doing so can result in a level of fatigue so great that the worker cannot fully recover by the following workday.

Investing in worker safety pays big dividends

One factor that has caused some companies to hesitate in developing an ergonomically sound work environment is the perception that the costs of doing so are too great. The reality is that making up-front investments in employee safety can actually improve a company's bottom line.


First, there is a quantifiable dividend from avoiding the costs associated with injuries in the workplace. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that in 2019 workplace injuries cost American businesses $171 billion. That figure includes a range of items, such as lost wages, medical expenses, and administrative costs. But the actual price tag to companies when their employees are hurt on the job goes far beyond those categories.

Companies suffer a significant negative impact on productivity when workers are kept off the job by their injuries. More seriously, when workplace safety concerns are not adequately addressed, the result may be that some employees never return to their jobs: in 2019 warehouse workers suffered the second highest number of job-related fatalities of any industry. In addition to the huge moral implications of that fact, the NSC reports that on average, each workplace fatality costs the employer more than $1.2 million.

And employees notice. In this age of the "Great Resignation" retaining experienced workers, and avoiding the substantial costs of finding, hiring, and training replacements for those who leave, is near the top of every company's priority list. Academic research reveals a strong correlation between workplace safety and worker retention.

Applying ergonomics in a company's workplace can be transformative

In an environment in which whole industries are undergoing an unprecedented degree of disruption, those companies that outperform their peers in terms of worker safety will enjoy a significant competitive advantage. By applying the science of ergonomics to both workplace design and to the materials handling systems that help employees do their jobs, companies help to ensure the health and safety not only of their workers, but also of their bottom lines.

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