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Ergonomics in Retail and Distribution
An Interview with Kevin Kelley

When you mention the word “ergonomics” to Kevin Kelley, Safety and Health Director for OfficeMax, you sense his enthusiasm. Kelley, who has managed ergonomics processes in both retail as well as manufacturing environments for more than a decade, has seen firsthand how ergonomics can play a huge role in both employee safety and productivity.

Kelley’s interest in workplace ergonomics began when he was working in health and safety for a large retailer, whose employees regularly experienced a high amount of manual material handling. In 2003, he accepted a position as a safety manager at Andersen Windows where he and his team were trained in ergonomics by Humantech. “We took a two-pronged approach with our ergo process and had the ergonomics committee address basic issues on the work floor, while our engineers (who were trained on ergonomic design guidelines) looked at the design of current and future lines.”

Kelley feels the ergonomics process went hand-in-hand with the company’s lean manufacturing initiatives. “When looking at productivity and efficiency, we knew ergonomics was something we had to do–it wasn’t even an afterthought.” And while it didn’t happen overnight, the company did realize “a huge drop” in soft tissue injuries within a few years.

Kelley returned to the retail environment in 2007. He notes some unique ergonomic challenges in that industry. “In my experience, there is generally a better understanding and acceptance of ergonomics principles in manufacturing, where the safety culture is stronger, turnover is lower, and the pace of work is not as extreme.”

Another challenge for retail can be the unloading of international products that often arrive at distribution centers floor loaded (not on a pallet). Ergonomic concerns also emerge during merchandise delivery and handling. “Because we don’t manufacture these products,” explains Kelley, “we don’t have a say in how they’re packaged or assembled.”

Since coming to OfficeMax last year, Kelley and his team have been working to address many of these retail-specific issues and the solutions can be as simple as batching deliveries to remove repetitive motions or stacking and banding several pallets together to bring product sorting into the comfort zone.

As for his future efforts to improve workplace ergonomics, Kelley and his team are in the planning stages of developing customized safe-lifting videos for their supply chain locations. “If we show our own associates performing their tasks in our locations in the videos, it becomes a more meaningful product that easily gains traction and our associates will know we take ergonomics seriously.”

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