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Retail Safety and Injury Prevention

female employee in retail clothing store

Even seasoned retail professionals might be surprised by the extent of the risks to health and safety retail workers face. Indeed, researchers were shocked to find that the retail sector reports an inordinate number of job-related illnesses, injuries and even fatalities. Recognizing the problem is the first step in preventing such injuries.

There are approximately 21 million retail workers in the US according to Labor Bureau statistics. In 2006, 581 retail workers suffered fatal work injuries, and another 820,500 were injured less severely. Study results demonstrate that the retail industry, which accounts for 15.5% of the workforce, incurs 20.1 % of the injuries and illnesses of American workers.

male employee with back injury from lifting boxes

Retail Health and Safety

When you work a retail job, you may think you are safe from injuries. Not focusing on your safety could be part of the problem. Many workers in the retail sector work part-time and are reluctant to forfeit those hours if they are not feeling well. They will continue to work with a minor injury instead of reporting it and seeking medical attention.

Minor injuries or repetitive motion injuries, when untreated, can get worse over time. If they don’t take a break to heal, retail workers can also set themselves up for further and more severe injury. In many cases, the employer is complicit in furthering injuries instead of insisting on treatment and preventative measures.

Threat of Musculoskeletal Injury

Musculoskeletal injuries are the biggest risk for retail workers. Sprains and strains from lifting or repetitive motions make up the majority of these injuries. Stocking shelves, unloading trucks and managing storerooms cause back pain if workers don’t complete these tasks safely. Some employers are not aware of the amount of physical activities required to complete certain jobs and do not have proper safety precautions in place.

A storeroom employee who comes to work with a sore back and continues to lift too much weight for his ability or practices unsafe lifting techniques could be on the road to a debilitating injury that will limit his ability to work in the future. Even stocking shelves with relatively lightweight items can present a health hazard because of the angle of bending required and the repetitive motion involved in performing the same task all day.

Risks of Small Retailers

Employers who operate small retail outlets sometimes place less emphasis on safety procedures, putting employees at greater risk. In these situations, employees often perform several tasks in the sales cycle, including handling products. Product and material handling is one of the most serious risks for retail workers.

two female store employees using cash register

Even stores that sell small or light items, like clothing, can present safety risks for employees. Clothing retailers often are not focused on worker safety because the risk is not immediately apparent to them. Small retailers tend to assign multiple tasks to employees. The pressure of performing several different tasks can set retail workers up for potential injuries.

Long shifts also contribute to injury rates. Many workplace injuries take place at the end of a long shift. Workers are tired, less focused and more likely to shortcut safety measures if there are any in place. Retail workers who lift product all day are more susceptible to injury at the end of the day when they are less able to carry the same amount or try to pick up more to complete the task faster.

Mitigating Risk in Retail Settings

Job design and proper hiring is a suitable place to begin to mitigate risk for retail employees. The expectations of any retail job should be realistic concerning repetitive motion and lifting. Employers should consider providing tools or automation to assist workers with physical tasks anywhere they can.

Employers may be able to hire people that can do the heavy lifting, but there are limits to everyone’s human strength. Continued heavy lifting for hours at a time will break down even the strongest person. It is a better idea to design job descriptions with a variety of tasks that people of any size and strength can accomplish.

Training is the next place to look for mitigating the risk of injury for retail workers. Management must put processes in place that protect the safety and health of all employees, whether they are lifting product, stocking shelves or assisting customers. Employees should always have access to safety equipment and be required to use it in all applicable situations.

Training is not usually enough to reduce the incidents of injuries for retail workers. Safety has to become a primary focus for the whole company. When managers are focused on protecting the well-being of employees, everyone is more careful. A company that values and rewards safe work habits is likely to have fewer injuries.

Retail Store Safety Checklist

While there are 75 sub-sectors within retail, each has the same basic elements. Products or materials are brought in by truck, unloaded and stocked in the store and delivered to customers. Many of the jobs in retail are similar across all sectors: moving stock, stocking shelves and cashing out customers.

male warehouse employee reading shipment labels

Identifying potential job hazards within a retail operation can be easy when you look at the motions required by employees in each of the different jobs. Here is a checklist of things to notice about a cashier position:

  • Are the horizontal surfaces at the cashier station all at the same height or does the cashier have to lift each item up and down?
  • Is there a floor mat or footrest available for the cashier at each station?
  • Does scanning an item require a twisting hand motion?
  • Does the cashier have to twist or stretch to reach the items?
  • Can the keyboard and screens be adjusted to accommodate the height of each cashier?
  • Are there any sharp edges on the cashier station that the cashier might bump into?
  • Is there a system for scanning bulky items that does not require the cashier to lift heavy objects, twist or bend awkwardly?

Building a cashier station that is ergonomically appropriate will go a long way towards reducing injuries. It is important to recognize that people come in different shapes and sizes. The elements of the cashier station should be adjustable as much as possible, so different employees can customize the workstation when they are using it.

Another common position in retail is the stockroom and stocking shelves. Here are some questions to ask in assessing the safety of these positions:

  • Are there handles on the totes and boxes used to move product?
  • Are cold products always handled with gloves?
  • Are the pallets used light-weight?
  • How does the weight of the boxes compare to employees’ lifting abilities?
  • How much twisting and bending is required to stock shelves?
  • Are blades on box cutters sharp enough?
  • Are pallet jacks employed, so no one is lifting below waist height?
  • Are heavy items moved with carts?

Every company should develop procedures for each task with worker safety in mind and strictly enforce safety measures. A protocol isn’t useful if no one follows it.

Other Retail Safety Risks

Lifting and bending aren’t the only health and safety risks for retail workers. Retail stores bring workers into contact with a public that can be unpredictable. For big sale days, crowd control can present risks for employees.

When planning a sale, it is important to put a plan in place that will protect workers and help the event run smoothly. The goal might be to get as many people in the store as possible so that they will make plenty of purchases, but if you put your employees at risk, the sale may end up costing you money.

Review your job tasks for each employee and imagine how efficiently they could work with a store full of customers. Moving stock around through crowded aisles can be a challenge. Crowd control and loss prevention are also harder for retail workers to handle on a hectic day.

Here are some things to consider when planning a big retail sale:

  • Ensure adequate staffing for the day. Not only will you need enough employees to wait on customers, but you will also need extra people dedicated to security and crowd control.
  • Rethink the flow of traffic in your store with an eye toward much larger crowds. You may need to reposition end-caps to widen aisles or increase signage to direct customers to cashiers and exits.
  • Create an emergency plan and review it with all employees. Do not leave it to chance that an employee will call 911 in an emergency. Outline specific actions and how to identify and respond to an emergency.
  • Provide training in crowd management and refresh that training just before the big sale. Also, train your employees to de-escalate situations with difficult customers before they get out of hand.

According to OSHA, crowd planning is one of the most important workplace injury prevention techniques retailers can use, especially during holiday seasons and big retail events. Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment. When it comes to these situations, retail workers must be included in the planning and training to reduce the risk of injury.

Planning for these kinds of events includes providing employees with a way of communicating with each other and with customers. Managing a crowd means mapping out sufficient walkways, providing enough merchandise and keeping customer expectations reasonable. Communicating wait times and other information to customers can help keep people from losing their tempers and causing dangerous conditions in the store.

Retail Workers’ Role in Injury Prevention

The employer is required to provide a safe work environment, but employees are part of maintaining a good safety record. Work procedures should be reviewed periodically with the input of the workers who perform those jobs. They are the ones who know the easiest way to accomplish the tasks, and they can help to create new protocols that are more efficient. Employees often provide the best retail safety tips because of their direct experience with the dangers of their jobs.

Staff can also point out parts of their jobs that feel unsafe or riskier than other tasks. When a worker has an apprehension about performing a task, he subconsciously adds more risk to the situation. Employees need to know that their job is safe and that they are not asked to do tasks they cannot handle.

employees need to know that their job is safe

An onsite safety inspection is a good way to find areas of unnecessary risk and improve them. Managers need to take the time to observe employees performing their assigned tasks in real-world situations to understand better how to improve safety during these activities. Forming a cross-department safety team to conduct these safety inspections will help retailers improve their safety protocols.

The best safety measures are the ones that employees actually follow. Training an employee on their first day and then never reinforcing or revisiting that training is not a reliable means of ensuring safety in the workplace. When you issue back braces for stockroom workers, you also have to insist they wear them correctly. This requires periodic spot-checks and positive reinforcement for safe habits.

Everyone in the organization needs to be aware of the proper safety precautions for all jobs. Retail workers can serve as a check on each other and offer positive reinforcement for safe work. Cutting open cartons all day with a box knife comes with risks. When someone who doesn’t usually use the tool must cut open boxes, those risks increase. When things get busy, people tend to work as a team and cross over into duties they do not typically perform to help out. If everyone received training on how to safely cut open a box, the likelihood of injuries will be less.

What To Do if You Are Injured at Work

Whether you work in a warehouse or an office, when you get injured at work, you need to report it to your supervisor. Most workplaces have a system for reporting injuries. Be sure to follow the policy outlined in your employee handbook or other materials you received during your training.

Instead of assessing the seriousness of your injury yourself, report it right away. There is no harm in reporting an injury that turns out not to be a big deal. The problem arises when you do not report an injury and it then becomes a showstopper.

If your injury requires medical attention, either immediately or in the days following, be sure to document your doctor’s visits. Tell the doctor exactly what happened at work that precipitated the injury. This information may help your doctor treat your injury more effectively. It will also be in your medical records in case you need to refer back to them.

When you get hurt at work, your employer is required to compensate you for lost time, medical expenses and lost wages for time when you could not work due to the injury. Calculating these benefits and getting them from the proper source can be complicated. If you are injured at work, contact KBG Injury Law to schedule a free consultation. We will review your situation and suggest the appropriate course of action so that you get the results you deserve.

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