Safety in store: From the back room to the parking lot, retail workers face many hazards on the job.

Via Safety and Health Magazine

Retail workers experienced a combined injury and illness rate higher that the construction industry in 2016.  Experts say top-down commitment is needed to prevent a work environment that values inventory over safety.

Key points

  • Most injuries occur because of the repetitive nature and manual lifting inherent in retail work.
  • Risk management involves many factors: Prevention through Design, innovation, training and hazard removal.
  • Slip, trip and fall hazards are in every part of stores, thus incidences of slips, trips and falls are growing.

When people go shopping, they likely aren’t worried about getting hurt or becoming ill at their local supermarket, big-box electronics store or home improvement center. Customers expect these places to have dry floors, clear paths, well-stocked shelves, and parking areas unobstructed by carts and free of broken pavement and icy surfaces.

However, the retail industry workers who provide that welcoming environment experienced a combined injury and illness rate (3.3 per 100 full-time workers) higher than the construction industry in 2016, according to a Bureau of Labor Statics report.

Moving products from delivery trucks to storage areas then to shelves, along with scanning and bagging items, is hazardous work. Musculoskeletal disorders are the most common injury experienced – 36.5 per 10,000 full-time workers reported an MSD in 2014. Slips, trips and falls are the third-most cited cause of injury among retail workers – after overexertion and contact with objects and equipment – and increased to 17.3 per 10,000 workers in 2014 from 12.1 in 2009.

So, how can employers help improve safety?


Mike Wahl, director of health and safety at XPS Logistics and former safety executive at Toys R Us and Walmart, said management needs to make safety a priority. Wahl said a lack of commitment at the top can result in an environment that values inventory over safety.

“(Corporate) strategy needs to be focused on routine safety training, including at orientation and annual refresher training,” he said. “Routines also need to include a monthly comprehensive inspection of the retail store, in addition to daily inspection of high frequency/high severity areas.”

Wahl recommends employers conduct annual refresher training for part- and full-time workers that emphasizes slip, trip and fall prevention; safe use of ladders; parking lot cart-collection procedures; stretching; manual material handling; and housekeeping.

John Leyenberger is a safety consultant who has spent more than 20 years as a domestic and international safety executive at Walmart. Because material handling is the leading source of injury in retail, Leyenberger said, processes must be efficient, and equipment and lifting techniques must be ergonomic.

“There’s no way around it,” he said. “There’s a lot of manual lifting in retail.”

One way to limit hazards associated with such labor is to minimize the number of times workers touch the product, he added.

He cited an example from Walmart illustrating how safety can mesh with other departments for the good of all: the ordering of popcorn tins, which are popular during the winter holidays.

“We looked at sales by day, and instead of one big push to 3,500 stores, we got them gradually, using data from previous years, with multiple shipments much closer to peak days,” Leyenberger said. “We worked with merchandisers and the logistics group. It was amazing how much they reduced the labor costs, reduced inventory levels and had more room for other products. The back injuries and material-handling injuries were reduced during a peak time of year when you want your ‘A’ team in there for good customer service.

“It reduced the shrink, it reduced the touches, it reduced the inventory level so that we had more inventory turns per store, and that’s a measurement most retailers use for performance of the store.”


Leyenberger said another way teamwork can improve safety is equipment design. Cashiers, for example, engage in hours of repetitive motion, so Walmart engineers worked with an equipment supplier to make the checkout area as ergonomic as possible. A lazy Susan for bagging resulted in less lifting, as customers moved full bags from the lazy Susan to their carts.

As much as the rotating bag stations help reduce lifting by cashiers – Leyenberger estimates that they can lift 2,000 pounds per 8-hour shift – other design features may limit the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. He said the results of a questionnaire sent to 500 stores helped the chain adjust conveyors to proper heights and advise cashiers to work as much as possible in neutral positions and to minimize reaching. Soft edges in the checkout area help reduce contact injuries, as well.

In 2004, OSHA published “Guidelines for Retail Grocery Stores: Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders,” and in 2014, NIOSH released “Ergonomic Solutions for Retailers: Prevention of Material Handling Injuries in the Grocery Sector.” The author of the latter is Vern Putz Anderson, a NIOSH public health advisor and program coordinator for NIOSH’s Wholesale and Retail Trade program.

Anderson said that regardless of the labor-saving machinery available to the retail sector, humans are the most important factor in safety.

“Technology can be a solution in reducing the repetitive nature of packaging and the heavy job demands associated with order picking,” Anderson said. “Yet, manual material-handling jobs are still an important component in retail, despite automation. This means that manual labor is still in high demand. Retail sales is still an intensive labor occupation, requiring employees with strong interpersonal abilities.”