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Why Warehouse Employees Ignore Safe Lifting Advice – and How to Help Them

To younger workers, lifting with their legs feels "wrong", so they damage themselves over time

Ergonomics Inquiry

lifting boxes and cartons correctly

The most common advice that ergonomics experts, OSHA, and other researchers provide to people in warehousing or other jobs that require manual lifting is that you should always bend your knees and lift that way, rather than bend at the waist to pick something up. Repetitive stress on the lower back is staggering: 20% of workplace injuries are related to lower back issues. Lifting right is essential to employee safety, and also to preventing Worker Compensation claims.

Even when you train employees to lift right – and we know that not everyone does – they frequently ignore the advice. Why?

back strain - lifting zones

It feels more comfortable to lift a box with your back than it does your legs

Many times, workers in a busy operation will ignore proper lifting techniques, even when they are correctly instructed. Why? Because it’s more comfortable to lift wrong. It expends more energy. It feels unnatural to squat to lift a box. According to the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, people would rather risk their lower backs than breathe hard or strain differently to lift a box from a rack or shelf to the floor, to break down a pallet correctly, or to handle any kind of manual load.

Getting younger, physically robust order pickers or material handlers to act in a way that might not pay off until they are 40 or older is a tall order.

Some recommendations:

  1. Be vigilant and repetitive in your training. Don’t assume one session, or even an annual one will get the point across.
  2. Make it part of your managers’ training to fully comprehend poor lifting techniques and how to spot them. Empower managers to reprimand workers who frequently lift in ways that can damage their backs.
  3. Reduce the weight being lifted. If it is a repetitive process, can the loads be broken down into lighter parts?
  4. Bring in older workers who are now having issues to speak with younger workers. Young people may feel invulnerable now, but nothing drives the point home like someone who has been down that road and has suffered the consequences.
  5. Enforce mandatory work breaks. Make sure guys who are in jobs that require lots of manual lifting get breaks. Fatigue promotes poor habits.
  6. Utilize ergonomic equipment that helps workers lift better, easier. For instance, a pallet positioner/rotator automatically brings the base of the pallet up to correct working height. While it’s not cheap at a glance, if you have a manual and repetitive palletizing/depalletizing operation, a couple thousand dollars is inexpensive over time given that it will remove the need for workers to bend and stretch. These pallet loaders can rotate, so they remove quite a lot of the physical stress that comes with loading or unloading a pallet.
  7. Reduce stooping. If you are picking from pallets at the floor level, consider adding a beam that elevates the pallet off the ground so that it is at a more comfortable picking level. This reduces strains, bending, and stress. See our guide to picking from floor level pallets for more on this topic.

More manual lifting resources

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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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