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Friday, 28 October 2011 16:40

Case Study: US NIOSH Studies of Injuries among Grocery Order Selectors

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The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied lifting and other related injuries at two grocery warehouses (referred to hereafter as “Warehouse A” and “Warehouse B”) (NIOSH 1993a; NIOSH 1995). Both warehouses have engineered standards against which order selector performance is measured; those who fall below their standard are subject to disciplinary action. The data in table 1 are expressed in percentages of order selectors only, reporting either all injuries or back injuries alone each year.

Table 1. Back and all reported workplace injuries and illnesses involving order selectors at two grocery warehouses studied by NIOSH, 1987-1992.


Warehouse A: all injuries (%)

Warehouse B: all injuries (%)

Warehouse A: back injuries only (%)

Warehouse B: back injuries only (%)































Sources: NIOSH 1993a, 1995.

At the risk of generalizing these data beyond their context, by any reckoning, the magnitude of recordable injury and illness percentages in these warehouses are quite significant and considerably higher than the aggregate data for the industry as a whole for all job classifications. While the total injuries at Warehouse A show a slight decline, they actually increase at Warehouse B. But the back injuries, with the exception of 1992 at Warehouse B, are both quite stable and significant. In general terms, these data suggest that order selectors have virtually a 3 in 10 chance of experiencing a back injury involving medical treatment and/or lost time in any given year.

The US National Association of Grocery Warehouses of America (NAGWA), an industry group, reported that back strains and sprains accounted for 30% of all injuries involving grocery warehouses and that one-third of all warehouse workers (not just order selectors) will experience one recordable injury per year; these data are consistent with the NIOSH studies. Moreover, they estimated the cost of paying for these injuries (workers’ compensation primarily) at $0.61 per hour for the 1990-1992 period (almost US$1,270 per year per worker). They also determined that manual lifting was the primary cause of back injuries in 54% of all cases studied.

In addition to a review of injury and illness statistics, NIOSH utilized a questionnaire instrument which was administered to all grocery order selectors. At Warehouse A, of the 38 full-time selectors, 50% reported at least one injury in the last 12 months, and 18% of full-time selectors reported at least one back injury in the previous 12 months. For Warehouse B, 63% of the 19 full-time selectors reported at least one recordable injury in the last 12 months, and 47% reported having at least one back injury in the same period. Seventy per cent of full-time workers at Warehouse A reported significant back pain in the previous year, as did 47% of the full-time selectors at Warehouse B. These self-reported data closely correspond with the injury and illness survey data.

In addition to reviewing injury data regarding back injuries, NIOSH applied its revised lifting equation to a sample of lifting tasks of order selectors and found that all the sampled lifting tasks exceeded the recommended weight limit by significant margins, which indicates the tasks studied were highly stressful from an ergonomic point of view. In addition, compressive forces were estimated on the L5/S1 vertebral disc; all exceeded the recommended biomechanical limits of 3.4 kN (kilonewtons), which has been identified as an upper limit for protecting most workers from the risk of low-back injury.

Finally, NIOSH, using both energy expenditure and oxygen consumption methodologies, estimated energy demand on grocery order selectors in both warehouses. Average energy demands of the order selector exceeded the established criterion of 5 kcal/minute (4 METS) for an 8-hour day, which is recognized as moderate to heavy work for a majority of healthy workers. At Warehouse A, the working metabolic rate ranged from 5.4 to 8.0 kcal/minute, and the working heart rate ranged from 104 to 131 beats per minute; at Warehouse B, it was 2.6 to 6.3 kcal/minute, and 138 to 146 beats per minute, respectively.

Order selectors’ energy demands from continuous lifting at a rate of 4.1 to 4.9 lifts per minute would probably result in fatigued muscles, especially when working shifts of 10 or more hours. This clearly illustrates the physiological cost of work in the two warehouses studied to date. In summing up its findings, NIOSH reached the following conclusion concerning the risks faced by grocery warehouse order selectors:

In summary, all order assemblers (order selectors) have an elevated risk for musculoskeletal disorders, including low back pain, because of the combination of adverse job factors all contributing to fatigue, a high metabolic load and the workers’ inability to regulate their work rate because of the work requirements. According to recognized criteria defining worker capability and accompanying risk of low back injury, the job of order assembler at this work site will place even a highly selected work force at substantial risk of developing low back injuries. Moreover, in general, we believe that the existing performance standards encourage and contribute to these excessive levels of exertion (NIOSH 1995).



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