Thursday, November 16, 2006

Wal-Mart: Wrong Turn On Ergonomics

Gotta hand it to Wal-Mart. They certainly know how to spin the press. They're happy all the time, they help people save money, they have "associates," not employees, they're the new environmental champions, and now they've apparently become a leader in ergonomics.

Of course, as usual, Wal-Mart's view of a good ergonomics program doesn't exactly match the experts' view of a good ergonomics program. According to the Bureau of National Affairs Occupational Safety and Health Reporter (paid subscription), Wal-Mart's program provides "lifting visual targets." They're called "Badge Backer" rules because they're posted on the back of each associate's identification badge. Pretty nifty.

The "Badge Backer" rules tell employees to:

  • face the work (to eliminates twists);
  • lead with their feet (also to eliminate twists);
  • keep the shoulders square (to prevent side twists);
  • keep the load close to the body (to reduce fatigue);
  • "fly like a bird," (keep the elbows low and in);
  • use a 90 degree bend (to keep the back vertical);
  • do not hold (to reduce fatigue); and
  • use a momentum swing (do not throw).

In other words, what they're promoting is "safe lifting techiques." Nothing wrong with those, unless they're all there is to the program, which apparently they are. The problem is that the best way to prevent back injuries is to lift less -- smaller packages, less frequent lifting, using engineering controls like mechanical lifts. "Safe lifting" doesn't reduce the weight that's being lifted, although it can help workers lift with less stress on the back -- unless the packages are difficult to grip, or you have to twist in order to get the box from one spot to another, or if you have to lift from too low or too high, or, or, or.

But Wal-Mart consultant Bill Mullen ensures us that if the associates follow all of these good ideas, "they can still go dancing after work." Or at least after their second job. Of course, during OSHA's ergonomics hearings during the Clinton administration, people suffering from serious musculoskeletal injures were more concerned with being able to pick up their children, vacuum the carpet and just living a normal life than "dancing after work."

Of course there are a few problems, according to Wal-Mart. Like if you use the nifty "momentum swing" with eggs, they're likely to scramble. And then there's the specially developed Wal-Mart "pull hook," which makes "pulling boxes more comfortable, eliminates awkward climbing, and makes the task easier." Except that there's still a problem with "catching and pulling freight at the same time," which I think means that you have to be careful not to pull boxes down on your head. The good news, however, is that each "pull hook" only costs one dollar.

And next year, Wal-Mart has in store ergonomic lifting videos and monitoring improvements in the use of "pull hooks."

Get ready to dance.