Natural Foods Merchandiser

Act now to ensure your workers' safety

Acute back pain. A broken bone from a fall. A finger caught in a meat slicer. While these workplace accidents mean pain and suffering for your employees, they also mean costs to your business.

Liberty Mutual, the leading provider of workers? compensation insurance, estimates that the direct costs of a workplace accident?payments to injured employees and their medical providers?are only a quarter of the indirect costs such as lost work time and productivity, overtime for other staff, pay for replacement workers, administrative time, not to mention higher workers? compensation premiums.

Until you?ve experienced a workplace accident or an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection, worker safety may not loom large on your radar screen. But injuries and government inspections can happen even to a small store.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.2 cases of nonfatal occupational injuries were reported to OSHA in 2006 for every 100 full-time workers in retail grocery stores, including 3.2 cases involving days lost from work, job transfers or work restrictions because of injury. That figure is above the national average for all workplaces, and equals a little more than one injury a year for a store with 20 staff members.

Don?t assume that your store is too small to draw OSHA?s attention. A survey by the National Federation of Independent Business found that 26 percent of small businesses with fewer than 20 employees had been inspected in the previous five years.

It?s not smart to wait for an accident or inspection. You can take action now to prevent workplace injuries by providing proper training and supervision and a modest investment in safety equipment.

?It all starts with management, from the [general manager] on down,? says Jos? Martinez, operations manager at BriarPatch Co-op Community Market in Grass Valley, Calif. Martinez came to BriarPatch after 16 years with Safeway. Last year the co-op expanded into a new 18,000-square-foot store with 125 employees.

Machinery and sharp objects in kitchens and meat departments are the No. 1 safety hazard, Martinez estimates. Next come back injuries caused by improper lifting techniques due to lack of training or poor workplace design. Then there are slips, trips and falls caused by wet, uneven or damaged surfaces, cluttered stairways and aisles, poor lighting and missing handrails.

In Martinez?s experience, accidents tend to happen in the first to fourth month of employment when inexperienced workers face unfamiliar working conditions without adequate safety training. ?When there?s an injury, everything falls back on management,? Martinez says, ?because we didn?t do the right thing for that employee in the first place.?

?Training, training, training,? is Martinez?s mantra. ?When investigating an accident, the main reasons you hear from employees are: ?I didn?t know,? ?I didn?t see,? and ?I didn?t think.? As in ?I didn?t see the step stool in the aisle,? or ?I didn?t think I?d slip and fall.? We need to be proactive.?

Department managers need to see real consequences for the financial impacts of workplace injuries on the bottom line. According to Martinez, at Safeway the cost of accidents is charged to the department where the accident occurred, running up to $15,000 if a worker is out for more than 30 days.

Injury rates and department-safety programs could be included among criteria for managers? performance evaluations, affecting their pay increases.

Front-line supervisors must nip problems in the bud as soon as they witness safety violations. Martinez explains: ?If you let it go, it creates a snowball effect. Then if you confront a safety problem down the road, the employee asks, ?Why is it important now when it wasn?t the previous 10 times?? ?

?In prevention, every employee plays a key role,? Martinez asserts. ?If you see a hazard that could cause a fall, don?t just walk on by. Do something or bring it to a manager?s attention.? Employees who report hazards or propose safer work processes could be awarded gift cards. Work teams that go a certain amount of time without injuries could receive group recognition?but beware of creating unintended incentives to suppress reporting of legitimate injuries in order to win rewards.

As BriarPatch settles into its new store, Martinez is setting up a safety committee with representatives from each department. Typically safety committees conduct internal inspections, keep safety records, investigate accidents and brainstorm ways to improve workplace safety. ?A dynamic safety-training program will reduce the number of accidents. You get what you pay for,? Martinez says.

Proactive picks

These products can enhance workplace safety at a reasonable cost to the employer. However, no tool can prevent injury unless employees use it properly and understand the risks involved.


One of the first safety measures that Jos? Martinez, operations manager at BriarPatch Community Market in Grass Valley, Calif., instituted was to get rid of old-style boxcutters in which the blade simply slides out of its sheath. With a safer model, a button must be pressed to extend the blade, several different settings adjust blade extensions and a guard next to the blade protects hands from cuts.


Require employees to wear eye protection when washing down meat and deli slicers and when using the cardboard baler. Martinez recalls an incident in which an employee got poked in the eye by baling wire.


Every workstation in meat and deli departments should have a rack to hold dirty knives until they can be cleaned. This provides an alternative to throwing a knife in the sink where it could cut someone.

Steel-mesh gloves

When using slicers for meats and cheeses, employees can avoid gruesome accidents by protecting their hands with mesh gloves. However, when cleaning slicers, employees need to understand that it?s vital to turn the power off first. If a mesh glove gets caught in a slicer, ?it will pull your hand right off,? Martinez says.

Appropriate footwear

Require everyone working on the retail floor, backstock areas and loading docks to wear closed-toed shoes?even if you meet resistance from those who want to wear sandals in summertime. If you have workers who spend most of their time unloading trucks and moving pallets, consider offering to pay for steel-toed boots. Some professional kitchens reduce falls by requiring production workers to wear non-slip shoes.

Floor cleaners

Schedule regular cleaning with app?ropriate products that will remove built-up grease, oil and soap scum on hard surfaces. Yellow sandwich-board ?wet floor? signs can warn staff and customers to watch out for slick surfaces. But beware of the all-too-human tendency to ignore the signs if they are continually left in place long after the floor has dried.

Floor mats

In areas with high foot traffic or likelihood of spills, mats can help avert slips and falls. Look for mats with perforated surfaces to drain spills and beveled or recessed edges to prevent tripping. They can be moved as production and traffic needs change. Some brands of mats are designed to extract water and dirt before they get tracked in other parts of the store. Like floors, mats need regularly scheduled cleanings.

Back belts? The jury is out

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health warns: ?Employers relying on back belts to prevent injury should be aware of the lack of scientific evidence supporting their use.? In fact, there is research showing that when workers believe (erroneously) that a back belt protects them, they may try to lift more weight than they would without a belt, thus risking greater injury. NIOSH urges employers, instead of issuing back belts to employees, to redesign the work environment and work tasks to reduce frequent lifting, pushing, pulling and twisting.

Ergonomics consultation

You can request a free, confidential consultation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration?s On-Site Consultation Service, available to small- and medium-sized businesses. OSHA consultants can help you evaluate and redesign jobs and work stations to reduce safety hazards. For more information, go to


Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. Contact her at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 16

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